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Hospital consultants could join strikes as union holds vote

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 31/01/2023 Laura Donnelly, Jack Simpson, Louisa Clarence-Smith
People protest in front of the London Ambulance Service during a strike - Henry Nicholls/Reuters © Henry Nicholls/Reuters People protest in front of the London Ambulance Service during a strike - Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Hospital consultants could join the wave of strike action, with the British Medical Association (BMA) to poll members on whether to take to picket lines.

The union announced plans to poll senior doctors on their appetite for walkouts as the country braced for the largest strikes yet.

On Wednesday, schools will close across swathes of the country, in what is becoming a de facto general strike as train drivers, civil servants and university staff join teachers in industrial action.

It will see 500,000 workers striking across seven unions in the biggest day of industrial action in over a decade, according to the Trades Union Congress.

Talks between the Government and the National Education Union (NEU) to avert the strikes collapsed on Monday, and more than 12,000 schools are expected to be fully or partially closed as a consequence. Earlier in the day, firefighters became the latest group of workers to vote in favour of striking, which would be their first nationwide industrial action for 20 years.

While NHS strikes are not due to resume until next week, when nurses and ambulance workers launch joint walkouts, hospital leaders fear Wednesday’s actions could prove deeply disruptive, because so many staff will have to stay home to provide childcare.

It comes as figures from the Office for National Statistics show one in five people in the UK are on an NHS waiting list.

Of those, a quarter said that they had been forced to cut their working hours while seven per cent are on long-term sick leave. The survey of almost 5,000 households also found almost one quarter of adults who wanted to see a GP in the last month were unable to.

Saffron Cordery, the NHS Providers’ interim chief executive, said that the threat of strikes by consultants was “alarming for an overstretched NHS already battling to cope with the effects of the most widespread industrial action in its history”.

Government can’t ‘wave a magic wand’

Amid the increasingly bitter dispute over public sector pay, Rishi Sunak on Monday said he would love to “wave a magic wand” to boost NHS salaries, but the Government needed to get a grip on inflation, which meant being responsible about borrowing.

He suggested that pay rises could stoke a “vicious cycle” of inflation or increased taxes.

“Where we are with taxes at the moment, we can’t put them up any more, right, and we need to be getting them down,” he said.

Speaking at the launch of a recovery plan for urgent and emergency care, which aims to lift pressures on A&E units, the Prime Minister insisted the plans were “ambitious”.

The plan promises that by March next year, 76 per cent of A&E patients will be dealt with in four hours. The official target is 95 per cent, but currently fewer than 70 per cent of people are seen in this timeframe.

On Monday, Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, said that there was no commitment to reaching the 95 per cent target because the impact of the pandemic had been “so severe,” saying the 76 per cent aim was “ambitious but achievable”.

So far, more than 80,000 appointments and operations have been cancelled because of strikes, with health leaders raising fears this number will “skyrocket” unless pay disputes are resolved.

The BMA said that the average consultant in England has experienced a “real-terms take-home pay cut of nearly 35 per cent since 2008/09” saying thousands have faced “large additional tax bills on their pensions” as well.

Dr Vishal Sharma, chairman of the BMA consultants committee, said: “Despite repeatedly outlining our concerns to Government, ministers have been unwilling to act.

“Senior doctors are cutting their hours or leaving the NHS in their droves, driven out of jobs they love by unfair pension tax rules and brutal cuts to their pay.

The indicative poll by the BMA will inform a decision about whether to ballot consultants on whether they would strike over pay and concerns about pensions.

Junior doctors are already being balloted, with their leaders having said they are “very, very likely” to strike.

Ms Cordery said: “More than 83,000 patients in the NHS have now had their appointments postponed due to the strikes in the last seven weeks. The shocking scale of disruption is a direct result of pay disputes between the Government and unions.

“Trust leaders are worried this could skyrocket with more strikes, which is an outcome no one can afford as trust leaders try tirelessly to bring down the elective care backlog. Worryingly, this could be just the tip of the iceberg if strike action continues.”

Schools walkout ‘hugely disappointing’

The walkout of NEU members across England and Wales will see schools close across the country after Monday’s failed talks.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, is understood to have told teachers that their above-inflation pay demands would be damaging at a time when the Government is trying to halve inflation this year.

In a statement released after the talks, she said it is “hugely disappointing” that the union is continuing with strike action.

“With talks ongoing on a range of issues, including around future pay, workload, behaviour and recruitment and retention, it is clear that strikes are not being used as a last resort,” she added.

Walkouts by train drivers on Wednesday and Friday are expected to bring the train network to a halt. Aslef, the trade body representing train drivers, has said that negotiations with rail firms had gone backwards six months since the New Year, with members pushing for further action.

Simon Weller, Aslef’s assistant general secretary, said there had been a significant deterioration in negotiations with the Rail Delivery Group, the body representing train companies, and said it was planning more strikes, and could see this being a long-term dispute that could stretch for months.

He told The Telegraph: “None of our members have crossed the picket line yet, and when we had a webinar last week, the questions [from members] were ‘when are we going to up the action?’ and ‘why don’t we hit them harder?’.”

When asked whether he felt the public was still behind the union, he said that public backing was higher than usual but it was not needed for Aslef to win the dispute.

“There is this new myth about only being able to win a dispute if you’ve got public support. It helps, but the reality is, do you have the support of strikers, that’s the crux,” he said.

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