NHS strike action rises as junior doctors set March strike dates

Junior doctors in England will withdraw for three consecutive days next month, the latest escalation in an unprecedented wave of strikes hitting the NHS, as talks between the government and nurses’ leaders continue in an attempt to end their industrial action. .

Announcing that junior doctors would withdraw for 72 hours from 13 March, the British Medical Association criticized Health Secretary Steve Barclay for “not coming to the table and negotiating”, leaving them “with no option but to go into strike”.

Barclay held further talks with the Royal College of Nursing, which has 465,000 members, on Friday. Ministers are hoping in particular that a deal can be reached with the nurses’ union in the coming days around a wage offer of just over 5% for the next financial year.

Downing Street believes a deal with the nurses, who enjoy huge public support, could mark the beginning of the end of the industrial unrest that has gripped Britain for months.

In some positive news for the government in the long-running rail dispute, the TSSA union on Friday accepted a package of reforms and wages from 9% of rail operators, ending a small part of the wider dispute over the network.

Union members, who represent around 3,000 employees and had previously agreed with Network Rail, voted to accept a retroactive 5% increase for 2022 and a 4% increase for 2023, with more for the lowest paid.

Health leaders warned of the impact junior doctors’ action would have on an already overstretched NHS. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, noted that when junior doctors last went on strike seven years ago, “the number of canceled outpatient appointments reached almost 300,000”.

Nearly 40,000 junior doctors backed industry action in the result of a vote announced on Monday. Barclay is now ready to host a meeting with the BMA next week, while also inviting other health unions into the talks, including representatives of ambulance workers at GMB, Unison and Unite.

However, a government adviser said that junior doctors’ demand for a 26% salary increase was simply “not affordable”.

Talks began with nurses earlier this week, following an intervention by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The focus on trying to resolve the dispute with nurses reflects Downing Street’s belief that if a major public sector pay dispute can be resolved, it could snowball with subsequent agreements in other sectors.

“Rishi wants to resolve this,” said a government official. “Nurses are obviously a priority because of public support for the strike and because there are so many of them.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, which also represents 200,000 nurses, questioned the approach: “It’s hard to see how a dispute involving five unions can be resolved by coming to terms with just one.” She added that if the government wants other unions to consider the offer it is negotiating with the RCN, it needs to “clarify what exactly is on the table. The sooner ministers do this, the better.”

A government source said he did not expect a “major breakthrough” in talks over the nurses’ pay before the weekend. But another person with knowledge of the talks suggested that both sides believed a resolution was close at hand.

The growing expectation in the NHS and government is that an offer of between 5% and 6% for the 2023-24 financial year could be put forward, possibly with a retroactive element to January.

Retroactive and better pay offers for the next financial year are likely to be offered in Whitehall, as the Treasury confirmed that increases of up to 5% carried only a “low risk” of having an inflationary effect.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union, which represents teachers, was at loggerheads with the government after it turned down a request by ministers to continue talks on condition that the strikes be called off. Union general secretary Mary Bousted said there had been “no clear movement” on pay.

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