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UK health secretary accuses striking medics of withholding cancer treatment

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Health secretary Steve Barclay has raised tensions with striking senior doctors ahead of what is expected to be a stormy Conservative conference, accusing them of withholding vital cancer treatments in spite of being among the highest paid UK public sector workers.

Medics will take their fight for higher pay to the Tories at their annual conference in Manchester, which starts this weekend, but Barclay told the Financial Times their strike action was leading to critical treatment being withheld.

He also refused to say whether Rishi Sunak would be able to meet his pledge to cut hospital waiting lists in the wake of the strike action. The total number of people waiting for non urgent treatment stood at 7.2mn when Sunak made the promise in January but it has now jumped to a record 7.7mn.

More than 1mn appointments and procedures have been cancelled since nurses kicked off a wave of industrial action in the NHS last December. Despite the disruption, opinion polls have suggested that a majority of the public continues to support the doctors. However, a survey this month found that only a minority supported consultants, with a far larger proportion supporting their less senior colleagues.  

Striking consultants on a picket line in London in July © Lucy North/PA

Barclay said the public hugely valued the contribution of doctors, “as do I”. But when people heard “that chemotherapy or dialysis or other time-critical treatment is being withheld” by people earning about £130,000 a year and with “the ability to earn significant sums in the private sector . . . they find that surprising”, he said.

Consultants’ earnings put them “in the top 2 per cent of public sector pay”, he added, doubling down on a claim contested by the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, that a newly qualified consultant would retire at 65 after a full-time career on a pension of up to £78,000 a year.

The BMA pointed to NHS data showing that the average pension received by a consultant in the most recent year was £41,756. 

Barclay said his figure reflected changes to pensions taxation the government had agreed as a concession to the medical trade union.

BMA chair Dr Vishal Sharma said consultants’ earnings reflected the fact they had to work many additional hours to plug staffing gaps © James Manning/PA

But Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, said it was “incredibly rich of the secretary of state to invoke time-critical procedures when his government has overseen a steep increase in waiting lists that saw them reach record levels even before any strike action took place”.

Consultants’ earnings reflected the fact they had to work many additional hours to plug staffing gaps, which Barclay had not acknowledged, he said, adding that only a small minority carried out private work.

Sharma also rejected Barclay’s assertions on pensions and said doctors typically retired before 65 and many “cannot work full-time for their whole career with no gaps”.

Doctors will hold a mass rally outside the Tory conference venue on Tuesday, the second of three days of action in which junior doctors and consultants will walk out in pursuit of above-inflation pay settlements. 

With the dispute continuing, the latest data shows that about 100,000 people joined the queue for non-urgent treatment in July. 

The trajectory has cast doubt on Sunak’s ability to ensure the numbers awaiting outpatient appointments or surgery will be falling by the next general election, one of his five “people’s priorities”.

Asked several times whether the target would be met, Barclay said: “The prime minister himself has said there’s been a very significant impact on the waiting list from the strikes.”

He added that the industrial action was having an effect not just on strike days but on “management teams, on bandwidth, on annual leave” on non-strike days as well. He insisted the health service had been “very successful, notwithstanding the headwinds”, at bringing down the longest waits.

He suggested that expanding capacity would help meet Sunak’s waiting list pledge, pointing to 119 community diagnostic centres and 43 surgical hubs that have opened over the past few years to ease pressure on hospitals. 

Barclay said that AI could also play a key role in improving and speeding up treatment, saying it offered an “enormous” opportunity for the health sector. He pledged that by the end of the year AI tools to help clinicians interpret brain scans to diagnose and determine the best treatment for stroke patients would be rolled out to all 107 stroke units across England.

The technology would help improve outcomes by allowing patients to receive treatment “on average an hour quicker than would have been the case without [it]”, he noted. 

He indicated that persuading more patients to share their data could help maximise the potential of the technology.

“One of the paradoxes at the moment is many people are happy to wear wearable technology that shares their health data with a Californian company, but would be more cautious about sharing it with their own government and the NHS, when the purpose of the government and the NHS is to support them in their health needs,” he said. 

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