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20,000 senior doctors working for Britain's NHS begin two-day strike over pay

The Royal London Hospital in Central London was one of hundreds of NHS hospitals across England hit Thursday by a two-day walkout by consultants. File Photo by Will Oliver/EPA
The Royal London Hospital in Central London was one of hundreds of NHS hospitals across England hit Thursday by a two-day walkout by consultants. File Photo by Will Oliver/EPA

July 20 (UPI) -- More than 20,000 senior National Health Service doctors walked out of hospitals across England on Thursday at the start of a 48-hour strike over pay that is expected to bring widespread disruption with nearly all appointments and operations called off.

The consultants will cover what their union, the British Medical Association, termed "Christmas Day" levels of care during the strike, meaning emergency care would continue to be provided but all elective or non-emergency treatment would be canceled.

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The strike, the first by consultants in 11 years, comes just two days after tens of thousands of junior doctors returned to their posts after a record five-day walkout that ended Tuesday, with the back-to-back industrial action pushing the NHS' ability to provide safe care to the limit.

NHS England warned the consultant strike would hit the NHS the hardest of any industrial action so far this year including walkouts by nurses and paramedics because it left insufficient time for hospitals to get back up to speed following the junior doctors' walkout.

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Consultants provided some cover for junior doctors during their strike but the junior doctors are unable to return the favor because their seniors are specialists and surgeons whose roles are indispensable.

The consultants, whose current basic pay runs $114,000 to $154,000, are demanding a 35% pay rise to correct for 15 years of below-inflation raises that have resulted in their pay falling in real terms.

The government says it cannot afford it and has unilaterally awarded them 6%.

"Our aim is to fix consultant pay now and for retirement. This should begin with an agreement to provide an above inflationary pay award for 2023-24," the BMA said.

"The Doctors' and Dentists' Review Body must also be restored to its founding principles so that it can operate free from political interference. We have provided every opportunity to avert industrial action. It has become apparent that, so far, they are unwilling to take the steps necessary to resolve this dispute."

Ahead of the walkout, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said that the raise already in place was "final."

"I am disappointed the BMA is going ahead with this week's strike, given the average consultant's NHS earnings are expected to increase to $173,000 a year," he said.

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"I hugely value the work of NHS consultants, which is why we have accepted the independent pay review body recommendations in full, giving them a 6% pay rise this year, on top of last year's 4.5% increase."

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has made halving inflation from its 11.1% peak one of the cornerstones of his leadership, has been fighting hard for public sector pay restraint amid a cost of living crisis caused by soaring prices of most essential goods and services including food and energy.

Labor opposition's Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting accused the government of trying to scapegoat health professionals.

"Now we know why Rishi Sunak refuses to negotiate with NHS staff. He wants the strikes to go ahead, so he can blame doctors and nurses for his failure," Streeting said in a Twitter post.

The BMA said its members would stage another 48-hour strike beginning Aug. 24 if the dispute was not resolved while radiographers are set to walk out for a two-day strike July 25.

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