UK health secretary accuses union of ‘militant stance’ on junior doctors’ pay

Health secretary Steve Barclay on Sunday accused the UK’s biggest medical union of maintaining a “militant stance” on junior doctors’ pay, ahead of a 96-hour walkout by medics in England over salaries and working conditions.

Junior doctors affiliated with the British Medical Association will on Tuesday morning begin four days of industrial action, as they seek to secure a pay rise of around 35 per cent.

The union has argued that since 2008-2009 junior doctors have experienced a real-terms pay cut of more than 25 per cent.

The NHS Confederation has warned that next week’s strike could lead to as many as 250,000 appointments being cancelled.

Last week, in an exchange of letters between Barclay and the union, the health secretary insisted that he was focused on “rapidly settling” the dispute, while the junior doctors urged him to put forward a “credible offer” to avert strikes.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Barclay argued that the BMA’s pay demands were “widely out of step with pay settlements in other parts of the public sector”.

Last month, the health unions Unison, the Royal College of Nursing and GMB urged their members to back the government’s pay offer of a one-off bonus and consolidated pay rise of 5 per cent for the 2023-24 financial year.

“I remain determined to find a fair and affordable offer that recognises the important work of junior doctors within the NHS while protecting the government’s commitment to halve inflation,” Barclay wrote.

“We cannot, however, negotiate until the BMA confirms it is pausing next week’s strike and moving significantly from its position of 35 per cent.”

The health secretary also warned that the walkouts, which coincide with Easter school holidays, Ramadan and Passover, will pose a “considerable risk to patient safety”, echoing comments by senior NHS figures who are braced for severe delays.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said the health service would seek to “minimise the impact” of the strikes. He added it would only cancel planned procedures where absolutely necessary, the walkout would cause “unparalleled levels of disruption”.

“This week, we will continue to prioritise emergency, critical and neonatal care, as well as maternity and trauma services, but it inevitably means that hundreds of thousands of appointments will need to be postponed again, including in cancer care,” he added.

A three-day strike action by junior doctors in March resulted in the cancellation or postponement of more than 175,000 patient appointments and procedures, placing added strain on the health service as it attempts to clear a waiting list backlog of about 7mn patients.

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