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NHS official says strike hampered efforts to discharge patients for Christmas

Some patients, who would otherwise have gone home to spend Christmas with families, have not been able to be discharged due to a shortage of staff

The three-day strike by junior doctors has hampered efforts to discharge patients for Christmas and a further six-day one planned for the New Year will put patient safety at risk, warns one health leader.

The 72-hour stoppage came to an end at 7am on Saturday but a second six-day long walkout is still on the cards from 7am Wednesday 3 January to 7am on Tuesday 9 January in England.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said damage had already been done by the first round of industrial action and urged the British Medical Association (BMA) and ministers to get back round the table to avoid the danger of a second.

He told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve coped, I think, pretty well with the last few days, partly because we’ve become sadly so used to planning for strike action.

“We’ve had strike action in various kinds going on for a year now.

“But there has been some impact. What I’ve picked up is some impacts in terms of being able to discharge people before Christmas.

“We rely on, generally most years, we are able to discharge more people before Christmas to be back home, for example, with their families, and that’s been slowed down.”

Some patients, who would otherwise have gone home to spend Christmas with families, had not been able to be discharged due to a shortage of staff.

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 6 File photo dated 18/01/23 of a general view of staff on a NHS hospital ward. Hospitals in England have spent more than ?3 billion on agency nurses in the last few years, according to new data. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) gathered figures under the Freedom of Information Act from 182 NHS trusts on spending on agency nurses plus nursing staff such as assistants and support workers. Issue date: Wednesday December 6, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story HEALTH Agency. Photo credit should read: Jeff Moore/PA Wire
Hospitals rely on being able to discharge people back home for Christmas, said NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor. (Photo: Jeff Moore/PA)

A second strike is due to start after the Christmas and New Year period, which will be the longest spell of industrial action in the history of the NHS.

Mr Taylor said: “Six days of strike action following bank holiday at a time of enormous pressure, there are real issues around patient safety and we don’t have in place national derogations, which we have had for other strikes.

“So yes, there will be an impact on the backlog, but I also have real concerns about patient safety over these days.”

National derogations would allow hospital trusts to ask doctors to come back into work to ease pressure in certain areas.

The latest round of industrial action was announced after talks broke down between the BMA and the Government.

Junior doctors were offered a three per cent rise on top of the 8.8 per cent increase they were given in the summer but the BMA said the money would have been split unevenly across different grades and would “still amount to pay cuts for many doctors”.

The Government has said negotiations will not take place until the threat of strikes was lifted.

And so a stand-off has been reached.

“It appears that the BMA won’t enter talks unless the Government commits to some extra money, the Government won’t go into talks until the BMA calls off the strikes”, said Mr Taylor, “This is not a time for standing on ceremony. This is a time for people to get around the table.

“It isn’t too late to head off those strikes in January.”

He added that “neither side wants to blink first, as though that would be a sign of weakness” but from the perspective of public, patients and others working in the NHS “anyone who moved first, I think, will get a great deal of credit for that”.

“So I would call on both sides to show a bit of imagination and get into talks”, he said.

Over the last three days, the BMA has urged the Government to rejoin negotiations with junior doctors with a “credible” offer and called on Health Secretary Victoria Atkins to “stop trying to divide the profession”.

Dr Rob Laurenson, BMA junior doctors committee co-chair, said: “The BMA is strongly committed to ensuring that patients are safe all year round, including during strike action.

“We recognise that patients are having to wait longer for care, but the reason for this is over a decade of chronic underinvestment in the NHS and its workforce by the Government.

“Junior doctors desperately want to care for our patients to the best of our ability, and our concerns about the impact of increasing staff shortages, deteriorating pay, and working conditions has forced us to take strike action.

“If Mr Taylor is as concerned about patient safety as we are, then he too should apply pressure on the Government, and encourage the health secretary to put forward the ‘credible’ offer she’s held back and avert the January strikes.”

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins outside the BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday December 3, 2023. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said many doctors would be feeling “deeply uncomfortable” about the timing of strikes. (Photo: Victoria Jones/PA)

On Thursday Ms Atkins suggested “many, many doctors” would be feeling “deeply uncomfortable” about the timing of strikes.

The health service is facing mounting seasonal pressure, with officials expecting it to be the most challenging winter yet.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has branded the strikes “disappointing” and urged junior doctors to call them off.

There have been 28 days of industrial action by junior doctors in 2023.

In Wales, junior doctors plan to walk out for 72-hours from January 15, while doctors in Northern Ireland are being balloted for strike action.

Those in Scotland have already come to an agreement with the Scottish Government.

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