LONDON – Britain is considering forcing some doctors and nurses to work during strikes from 2024 as they prepare to walk out together for the first time this week in a historic move that will cause major disruption for patients.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure to get a grip on industrial action.
He has launched a consultation to weigh introducing minimum service levels to require some doctors and nurses to cover urgent, emergency and time-critical hospital-based services during strikes in 2024, the government said in a statement.
Mr Sunak’s administration has already introduced a law to make it harder for essential workers such as firefighters and teachers to walk off the job.
Consultants – the most senior grade of doctors – will walk out of England’s hospitals from 7am on Tuesday for 48 hours.
Junior doctors – qualified medics who are still in training – will join them for 24 hours from 7am on Wednesday. They will deliver Christmas Day levels of staffing, meaning only emergency care will be provided.
Junior medics will then continue their strike with a “full walkout” on Thursday and Friday.
Both groups will strike again from Oct 2-4, coinciding with the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester.
National Health Service (NHS) leaders warned that almost all planned care will be stopped, with hundreds of thousands of appointments postponed.
“The NHS has simply never seen this kind of industrial action in its history,” NHS national medical director Stephen Powis said in an e-mailed statement.
The walkouts are a major blow to Mr Sunak ahead of a general election expected in 2024.
The opposition Labour Party is leading in opinion polls, and is eyeing a return to power after 14 years.
Ongoing strikes can reinforce an impression of public service decline under the Tories, and trade unions aim to underline this by coordinating action during the party’s high-profile gathering.
“This week’s coordinated and calculated strike action will create further disruption and misery for patients and NHS colleagues,” Health Secretary Steve Barclay 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.”