Doctors' leaders signaled an end to a damaging series of NHS walkouts on Wednesday, as junior doctors launched the biggest-ever strike in the history of the health service. The number of operations and appointments blocked by the action is expected to top one million this week and comes after more than a year of disputes involving nurses and consultants.
But the union representing junior doctors signaled a softening of its position at the start of 6 days of industrial action as NHS bosses called for “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Vivek Trivedi, co-chairman of the British Medical Association's junior doctors' committee, said he was happy to publicize his unions' demand for a 35 per cent pay rise “for many years” as it showed a willingness to return to the bargaining table.
He also told the government that a “credible offer” on which the union could “build” could stop this week's strike.
Ending the strike would be a boon to millions stuck on growing NHS waiting lists and would boost Rishi Sunak's efforts to deliver on one of his key campaign promises.
But the sign of hope came as millions of commuters braced for another devastating strike next week.
Walkouts planned by London Underground staff belonging to the RMT union are set to cause massive disruption in the capital over four days. Tube passengers have already been told to only use the service if their journey is “essential”.
As the biggest strike in NHS history began, health service leaders warned its impact would be felt for “weeks and months” as appointments are rescheduled and the NHS works to make up for lost time.
One hospital declared a critical incident, while others reported significant waits in A&E departments – with a warning to patients that they faced waits of up to 11 hours.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, warned that the strike coincided with one of the busiest and most difficult weeks of the year, when the NHS was already struggling with rising demand for treatment.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS Trusts, called on both sides to restart negotiations.
He said The independent: “While there is a sense that there is a basis for resuming talks, neither side has made the first move and I would urge both sides to meet now. This dispute has a huge impact on patients and could further jeopardize efforts to recover services and tackle waiting lists.”
He added: “If an agreement is not reached, there is a risk that further strikes will lead to more appointments and cancellations of operations, with more patients facing even longer waits.”
Sir Julian Hartley, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents Trust leaders, said: “We cannot go on like this. Industrial action lasting months does not bear thinking about.
“Confidence leaders are desperate for the government and unions to break the deadlock and prevent more walkouts. We need to see new efforts to find a solution to this dispute, especially as the threat of further strike action by other NHS workers has not gone away.
“The impact of more than a year of strikes on patients, staff morale and NHS finances has been huge and will only get worse the longer this goes on. We have to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The government insists it is willing to talk to striking doctors, but not with the threat of industrial action looming.
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins had called on the BMA to call off the strikes and start 2024 “right”.
In an interview with the BBC, Dr Trivedi said: “Anyone from the government could still come to us today and if we believed that this offer was credible and if we can continue the talks and build on that, then we can stop our strike for the rest of the week.”
He also said the BMA's demand for a 35% pay rise did not necessarily have to be delivered in one go.
“We're not even saying it has to happen in a year. We're very happy to look at details that will take several years – but what we need to do is start a path towards that and not further erode pay,” he said.
Dr Vivek Trivedi said that while he hoped ministers would return to the negotiating table now, “from all the messages they are sending it will not be until our strike is over. And I hope at this point we can come to a solution.”
Government sources said they believed there had been a significant change in tone from the BMA. But they accused the doctors' leaders of walking away from earlier talks and showed the two sides were still struggling to find a solution.
The BMA claims junior doctors' pay has fallen by more than a quarter since 2008.
Last summer, they were awarded an average increase of 8.8%. But doctors said the increase was not enough.
Late last year both sides began talks, but after five weeks of negotiations, these broke down and more strikes were called.
Councilors agreed a deal with ministers, which is currently with members.
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Gwynne said: “It's time for the Conservatives to stop playing games with our NHS, talk to junior doctors and negotiate an end to these long-running strikes today.”
Lib Dem health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “This Tory government is putting people's health at risk by failing to end these strikes.”