Hospital volunteers are being moved to A&E departments to calm patients who may feel forgotten about during an unprecedented round of joint strikes by junior doctors and consultants this week.
NHS trusts have also been forced to cancel operations that were already postponed from previous rounds of strikes, as planned care throughout England grinds to a halt. Seriously ill patients previously protected from industrial action are now having care rescheduled as a result of the joint action, health leaders said.
A senior medic told i further delays to routine care would inevitably push many patients into needing emergency treatment, as they would not be able to cope with their symptoms the longer they are forced to wait for treatment.
Consultants begin their 48-hour strike action on Tuesday and are joined by junior doctors on Wednesday as they begin a 72-hour walkout with the British Medical Association (BMA) still locked in bitter dispute with the Government over pay.
From 7am on Wednesday, both junior doctors and consultants will deliver Christmas day levels of staffing only, meaning that only emergency care will be provided.
Both groups will then strike for 72 hours between 2-4 October, dates which coincide with the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, again providing Christmas Day cover only, meaning emergency care will continue to be provided.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts, said the industrial action is likely to cause the worst patient disruption hospitals have ever seen.
She said: “The continuing dispute – and the absence of meaningful dialogue between the two sides – is worrying for patients, demoralising for staff, and damaging for the NHS. Patients have been left paying the price with concerns mounting about the deteriorating quality of life for those who continue to face long delays to their care.
“The impact is growing and becoming more pervasive by the day. Staff are exasperated at spending valuable time rescheduling large numbers of appointments and preparing for industrial action instead of being able to focus their efforts on reducing record waiting lists and getting ready for what is likely to be another tough winter.”
One trust leader said they have had to reschedule care for more seriously ill patients who previously may have been protected from strike disruption. Another said their trust is rescheduling appointments for some patients whose care has already had to be moved because of strike action.
Another trust said that, for the first time, they are planning to deploy volunteers, who are invaluable in supporting patients with meals and drinks as well as providing company, into the emergency department during strikes.
“The volunteers will be supporting patients by providing company, having a chat and giving them a sense that they are on the radar,” a trust source said. “They’re also helping with bringing them meals and drinks. There’s no suggestion of any clinical input from volunteers.”
Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society of Acute Medicine, told i: “The resilience of both the NHS system and colleagues to manage industrial action reduces with each round of strikes. This reflects increasingly low levels of workforce morale with impacts on patient care inevitably to occur.
“Waiting lists will increase; patients on these lists will invariably become emergency patients unable to cope with their symptoms; urgent and emergency care will be unable to deal with any increase in demand leading to prolonged waits and demeaning corridor care. This becomes a spiral of decline which will result in appalling scenes such as those witnessed last winter.
“The time and ability to recover from each period of action also becomes longer and less achievable with each round of action. This needs government action to resolve immediately: the narrow window of opportunity to reverse this is rapidly closing.”
Medics are seeking a 35 per cent pay rise which ministers have called “unrealistic and unfair”. Consultants have been given a 6 per cent pay rise while junior doctors have been given a rise of between 8.1 per cent and 10.3 per cent, depending on where they are in their training. More than 885,000 inpatient and outpatient appointments have been rescheduled as industrial action enters its 10th month.
NHS national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis warned the health service had “never seen this kind of industrial action in its history” but said people should still call 999 and use A&E as normal in emergency situations.
He said: “This week’s first ever joint action means almost all planned care will come to a stop and hundreds of thousands of appointments will be postponed, which is incredibly difficult for patients and their families, and poses an enormous challenge for colleagues across the NHS.”
Figures released earlier this month showed the NHS waiting list in England reached a new record high with 7.7 million people – around one in seven – waiting for treatment.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak began his premiership pledging to cut waiting lists, but ministers’ failure to resolve the dispute with junior medics and consultants has cast doubt on whether that promise can be achieved.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’ve already seen 900,000 appointments cancelled as a result of strikes and the co-ordinated action next week will create further disruption for patients and fellow NHS staff.
“We accepted the independent pay review body’s recommendations in full, meaning doctors who started their hospital training this year are receiving a 10.3 per cent pay increase, with the average junior doctor getting 8.8 per cent. Consultants are receiving a 6 per cent pay rise and are already in the top 2 per cent of earners in the country.
“This pay award is final and the Health and Social Care Secretary is clear his door is open to discuss non pay issues if the BMA call an end to this damaging disruption.”