Hospital bosses have pleaded with ministers to re-open pay talks with health unions as the biggest round of strikes in NHS history began on Monday morning.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, told the Standard that trust leaders were “incredibly concerned” about the impact of co-ordinated nursing and ambulance strikes this week and “can't see a path out” of the dispute.
Mental health minister Maria Caulfield claimed that patients would be put at risk “the longer that strikes go on”, with thousands of operations and appointments likely to be cancelled.
But Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite, accused the Government of playing a "political football game" with the NHS and urged Health Secretary Steve Barclay to "get in a room and get a deal on the table".
Speaking from a picket line in Cardiff, she said: “I can’t put ‘constructive talks’ on the ballot paper... They just need to come to the table. They should have done it months and months and months ago, and if they had done that we would not be in this position.”
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members walked out from 7.30am on Monday in seven London NHS trusts, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ and Great Ormond Street. Ambulance workers from the GMB and Unite unions are also on strike in several regions of England on Monday but these do not involve members of the London Ambulance Service (LAS).
Further strike action will be held by the RCN on Tuesday while ambulance staff who are members of Unison - including the LAS - will stage industrial action on Friday.
The RCN have demanded a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation but have indicated they would be prepared to settle for a lower figure, while other health unions have demanded a rise that at least matches inflation.
Speaking to Sky News, Ms Caulfield said that a prolonged dispute would heighten the risk to patients.
“If your operation is cancelled the first time, there is probably a minimum risk. If that’s cancelled time and time again because of ongoing strikes, then patients become more poorly and there is always a risk.
“And with ambulance strikes, if someone’s having a heart attack or a stroke, that does increase someone’s risk the longer that response time is.”
The RCN in Wales on Friday called off planned strikes for this week after receiving a pay offer from the Welsh Government. Industrial action has already been postponed in Scotland while union officials hold pay talks with Holyrood.
But Mark Farmer, Interim RCN London Director, told the Standard that there had been “no movement from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet” on nurses pay in England.
“If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the challenges in the NHS he must listen to what our members are telling him. London’s NHS is missing over 11,000 nurses and years of below-inflation pay rises and the rising cost of living is simply making it unaffordable to be a nurse in the capital," he said.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, told the Standard that NHS trust leaders were “incredibly concerned” by the escalation of strike action but that the impact would be “variable” across the country. Around 88,000 appointments have already been cancelled as a result of industrial action, according to estimates by NHS Providers.
“Senior leaders in the NHS are starting to say that industrial action is having a direct impact on their ability to bear down on care backlogs. So the Government has to take an integrated, cohesive approach and resolving industrial action must be a part of that.”
She added: “Our key ask is that the Government does sit down around the table with the unions for formal negotiations on pay, and for that to be applied to pay this year. That’s the central ask for the unions, so it is the way out.
“All sides to have to compromise but I think the absence of any formal negotiations is very worrying. It is one thing to get round the table and talk but that’s not the same as an open negotiation on pay which is what the unions are looking for."
The British Medical Association (BMA) is currently balloting over 45,000 junior doctors and have said that a 72-hour strike will be held in March if they vote for strike action.
Ms Deakin said of the potential strike: “If the unions can’t see a route to negotiation with Government out of this crisis, then their strategy is naturally going to be to escalate. They might not want to find themselves in that position, neither will NHS staff, but that is the natural course of events which has been set off now.
“Trust leaders are incredibly concerned about the prospect of junior doctors going out on strike. It will inevitably have a huge impact on patient care and the most worrying scenario is that we start to see coordinated action within those groups in top of what we’ve already got.”
Mr Barclay repeated his call for the unions to call off strike action, insisting that he was open to negotiations.
“NHS contingency plans are in place but these co-ordinated strikes will undoubtedly have an impact on patients and cause delays to NHS services,” he added.