The government has been accused of seeking to escalate industrial conflict rather than resolve it after outlining plans to extend its controversial anti-strikes legislation to doctors and nurses.
The new regulations would mean doctors and nurses have to provide a certain level of cover after being issued with a “work notice” by employers on what is needed to maintain “necessary and safe levels of service”.
The rules are not expected to come into effect until next year but they will be open to public consultation from Tuesday – when fresh doctor strikes are to begin.
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Union leaders condemned the move as “desperate” and urged the government to focus on finding a resolution to end strikes rather than prevent them going ahead.
Consultants are walking out in a long-running dispute over pay on Tuesday and Wednesday this week as well as on October 2, 3 and 4.
Junior doctors, who have held 19 days of strike action since March, will walk out on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, and October 2, 3 and 4.
This means that Wednesday’s strike this week, plus the three days next month, will see both consultants and junior doctors absent from work on the same days.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said the “co-ordinated and calculated strike action will create further disruption and misery for patients and NHS colleagues”.
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Defending the need for minimum service levels (MSLs) he said: “My top priority is to protect patients and these regulations would provide a safety net for trusts and an assurance to the public that vital health services will be there when they need them.”
However, Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the consultants’ committee at the British Medical Association (BMA), insisted that hospitals already ensure patient safety is prioritised when they take industrial action and the government “should put its efforts into stopping the strikes rather than forcing people to stop striking”.
He told Sky News: “Rather than trying to prevent people going on strike, the government should really be focusing on making sure it is valuing its staff properly so strike action isn’t being considered.
“There hasn’t been strikes in the NHS for a very long time, it really has come to this point because the government aren’t valuing its staff.”
Consultations on minimum service levels (MSLs) have already run for ambulance staff, fire and rescue services and passenger rail workers, after the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act became law in July.
The legislation has given the government new powers to introduce regulations requiring minimum service levels during strike action in respect of a list of public services, including health, fire and rescue, education and transport.
However the drafting of the new regulations setting out the practical impact of this is likely to take some time, with ministers also facing the threat of legal action from unions.
Paul Nowak, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), told the delegation’s annual conference in Liverpool last week that he is reporting the government to the UN workers’ rights watchdog over the legislation.
He called the announcement on Monday night “yet another desperate attempt from the Conservatives to distract from their dire record in government”.
He told Sky News: “Everyone knows NHS professionals already provide safe levels of staffing during industrial action.
“These laws haven’t been designed to resolve conflicts – they’ve been designed to escalate them. They will only sour industrial relations and worsen disputes.
“They’re unworkable, undemocratic and almost certainly in breach of international law.
“That’s why we won’t rest until this Act has been repealed. And we won’t stand by and let workers get sacked for defending their pay and conditions.”