Four days of strikes by junior doctors next week will cause “unparalleled levels of disruption”, the NHS national medical director has warned.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis said he was “very concerned” about the potential severity of the impact on patients, with hospitals facing nearly 100 hours without up to half of their medical workforce.
Up to a quarter of a million appointments and operations could be postponed when medics in England walk out in the bitter dispute over pay on Tuesday, straight after the Easter bank holiday weekend, the NHS Confederation said.
Professor Sir Stephen said: “This next round of strikes will see unparalleled levels of disruption, and we are very concerned about the potential severity of impact on patients and services across the country.
“This time the action immediately follows a four-day bank holiday weekend, which is already difficult as many staff are taking much-needed holiday, and it will be more extensive than ever before with hospitals facing nearly 100 hours without up to half of the NHS medical workforce.
He said the NHS would continue to prioritise emergency, critical and neonatal care, as well as maternity and trauma services, but inevitably hundreds of thousands of appointments, including in cancer care, would need to be postponed again.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “In the last junior doctors’ strike we saw about 175,000 appointments and operations having to be postponed.
“In terms of the disruption that we’re anticipating this time, we reckon it could be up to about a quarter of a million so that is a huge amount of impact for patients up and down the country.”
She added: “What we’re hearing from our members who are health leaders across the whole system is that they are more concerned about this than they have been about about any other strike.
“They think that the impact is going to be so significant that this one is likely to have impact on patient safety and that is a huge concern for every healthcare leader.”
In an op-ed for the Sunday Telegraph, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the decision from BMA leaders to maintain an “unrealistic position” for a 35% pay increase demand has halted any progress with talks between the two parties.
“This demand is widely out of step with pay settlements in other parts of the public sector at a time of considerable economic pressure on our country. A salary hike of this size would see some junior doctors receiving more than an extra £20,000 a year,” he said.
“I recognise their hard work and dedication. But it is deeply disappointing that this industrial action has been timed by the British Medical Association (BMA) Junior Doctors Committee to cause maximum disruption to both patients and other NHS staff.”
Mr Barclay said he remains “determined” to find a fair offer that benefits junior doctors but also halve inflation.
“I value the important work these doctors do every day, and I want to see a fair deal that increases their pay. But I think the public also expects that any deal will be fair to taxpayers and not put our efforts to tackle inflation at risk.”
He added: “We’re happy to meet at any time. We would still meet him over the bank holiday weekend before the industrial action next week.
“And if he was to bring a credible offer to us, it could still, even at this late stage, avert action.”
Dr Greenhalgh apologised to patients who have had operations or appointments cancelled and insisted patient safety would not be put at risk.
“Patient safety was maintained at the last strikes, and it will be in these strikes,” he said.
The BMA has called on the Health Secretary to negotiate to resolve 15 years of “pay erosion”, with junior doctors losing more than 25% of their pay in real terms.
“And part of that is making sure that there’s a fair deal on pay for our members.”
BMA workforce lead Dr Latifa Patel said there was a jointly agreed system in place with NHS England to ensure patient safety.
“We met with NHS England four times per day during the last strikes to monitor the situation, but there were no requests for a derogation – a temporary stoppage of the industrial action – to be made,” she said.
The four days of strikes will come immediately after the Easter bank holiday weekend.
They will run from 6.59am on Tuesday until 6.59am on Saturday April 15.