National Health Service doctors began a four-day strike Tuesday in a dispute with the government over pay. The action which includes emergency room doctors will likely put patients at risk but the union said its members would return to duty in the event of a situation involving mass casuaties. Photo by Adam Vaughan/EPA-EFE
April 11 (UPI) -- Tens of thousands of British doctors walked out of hospitals across the country Tuesday at the start of a four-day strike over pay and conditions, forcing the cancellation of at least 350,000 operations and appointments.
Doctors in England are seeking a 35% pay rise to correct for 15 years of below-inflation raises that have resulted in their pay falling in real terms but the government says it cannot afford it.
The action follows a three-day strike last month but will likely be more disruptive because many of the consultants -- senior specialists -- who covered for their juniors during the previous walkout are on leave following a long holiday weekend in Britain.
Speaking ahead of the strike NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor warned the strike posed a danger to life.
"There will be risks to patient safety, risks to patient dignity -- as we're not able to provide the kind of care that we want to."
Health Secretary Steve Barclay attacked the British Medical Association for staging the strike on the first working day following a four-day holiday accusing the union of timing the action to wreak the maximum disruption possible on the country's $188 billion National Health Service.
"Not only will the walkouts risk patient safety, but they have also been timed to maximize disruption after the Easter break," Barclay said in a statement.
He said the BMA's pay demand was "unreasonable" and would see some doctor's pay rise by more than $25,000 a year.
"If the BMA is willing to move significantly from this position and cancel strikes we can resume confidential talks and find a way forward, as we have done with other unions."
Barclay said people should attend medical appointments during the strike unless notified otherwise and to continue to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies.
The government's approach devalued the training, skill and vital work of doctors and was causing them to leave the NHS, the BMA said in a news release.
"This is highly skilled work requiring years of study and intensive training in a high-pressure environment where the job can be a matter of life and death," said BMA junior doctors committee co-chair Vivek Tripedi.
"Why then has the Government allowed junior doctor pay to be cut in real terms by over a quarter in the last 15 years. Why do Ministers not understand that only by valuing and retaining NHS staff will the NHS be able to deliver the high quality healthcare it once could."
"Full pay restoration is not a high price to pay for healthcare that junior doctors deliver."
Tripedi said the BMA was ready and willing to begin talks and Barclay could stop the strikes at any time if he put forward a "credible offer."
The Labor opposition's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said it was shocking that no minister from the Department of Health was prepared to face the media Tuesday to explain their "abysmal failure" to avert junior doctors' strikes.
"[Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak says he 'wouldn't want to get in the middle of' NHS pay disputes. Patients are suffering as a result of his cowardice," Streeting said in a Twitter post.