Hospitals may struggle in all-out strikes, says GMC

Demonstrators at a rally and protest march for junior doctors in London Image copyright PA

Junior doctors in England may need to rethink plans to take part in next week's all-out strikes amid concerns some hospitals could struggle to cope, the regulator of the profession says.

Doctors are to take part in the first ever stoppages involving emergency care next Tuesday and Wednesday.

It will see medics walk out of A&E, intensive care and maternity units.

But the General Medical Council has now issued advice saying striking may not be the "right option" in some places.

And it urged those considering taking action to take "reasonable steps to satisfy themselves" that patients would be safe.

The GMC said it had not received any warnings from hospitals, but was making the judgement based on the scale of the walkouts being planned.

There have been fears raised by some that smaller hospitals in particular may find it difficult to cope during the stoppages.

The GMC also expressed concern about the cumulative impact of the dispute - nearly 25,000 operations and treatments have had to be postponed because of industrial action.

NHS England is currently checking with NHS trusts that they have adequate contingency plans in place for next week and is due to meet leaders at the British Medical Association on Thursday to discuss whether junior doctors are needed to come in anywhere.

There is an agreed escalation procedure in place which allows NHS bosses to ask the BMA to allow its representatives to request doctors do not strike if needed.

Plans will also be in place on the day to allow doctors to be called in if there is a major incident.

How the dispute reached stalemate

  • Talks at conciliation service Acas broke down in January
  • A final take-it-or-leave it offer was made by the government in February but was rejected by the BMA
  • Ministers subsequently announced the contract would be imposed in the summer
  • It will reduce the amount paid for weekend work, but basic pay is being increased
  • The BMA wants a more generous weekend pay allowance and extra investment to pay for the plans for more seven-day services
  • Two legal challenges are being pursued by doctors against the imposition
  • Hospitals are pushing ahead with the new contract - offers are expected to go out in May

There have been four strikes in the contract dispute since the start of the year.

On each occasion, junior doctors have provided emergency cover.

But next week's walkouts - taking place from 08:00 BST to 17:00 BST on both days - will involve all services. Although consultants, nurses and midwives will still be working.

This has never happened before in the history of the NHS and comes after the government announced it would be imposing a new contract on doctors from the summer.

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said he recognised there was "anger and frustration" in the profession, but added it was not up to the GMC to comment on the rights and wrongs of the dispute.

But he said: "For every doctor affected these are difficult and worrying times and feelings are understandably running high.

"We know all doctors will want to do their utmost to reduce the risk of harm to patients and this advice is designed to help them achieve that."

NHS England said it was talking to hospitals about the plans they were putting in place.

Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of National Voices, a coalition of charities and patient groups, said: "This is significant as it is the first official acknowledgement that patients could be put at increased risk by the all-out strike action."

BMA junior doctor leader Dr Johann Malawana said the union was working with the NHS to ensure care remained safe.

"The critical message for patients is that anyone who needs emergency care during the days of industrial action will get it, the difference is that it will be provided by senior doctors rather than junior doctors."

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