GPs, pharmacists and matrons are among NHS staff being drafted in to help trusts cope with this week’s junior doctors’ strike as hospitals send out an “all hands on deck” appeal to cope with the mass walkout.
NHS England’s medical director said the 96-hour strike without emergency cover will cause “unparalleled levels of disruption” with around 250,000 appointments and operations postponed. Some trust chief executives have been forced to cancel all leave for consultants to fill rota gaps left by the walkout.
The strikes will come immediately after the Easter bank holiday weekend and will run from 7am on Tuesday until the morning of Saturday April 15.
Junior doctors said they are hopeful emergency care will not be affected, although acknowledged it is inevitable many patients will have treatment delayed and operations postponed.
Trust leaders have told NHS Providers, which represents trusts, that hospitals are bringing in matrons, pharmacists, GPs, paramedics and others from the community, as well as some non-patient facing staff within the trust, such as radiologists and biochemists to support frontline staff this week. Extra shifts have also been offered to locums, or temporary staff, to help out.
Ward managers have been told to focus on discharging medically fit patients to go home and to step up virtual ward and urgent community response services where possible. Weekend rotas either side of the strike have been beefed up to try and cope with the inevitable backlog that will arise due to the unprecedented four-day strike by the British Medical Association (BMA).
The union, which represents around 47,000 junior doctors, is campaigning for pay restoration citing a 26.1 per cent real-terms pay cut since 2008. Meeting the target would require a 35.3 per cent pay rise, which Health Secretary Steve Barclay has called “unrealistic”.
An A&E registrar in East Midlands told i: “We’ve been busy preparing for this week. Weekends, particularly long weekends, you usually have ‘bare bones’ staff, but most hospitals have brought in extra locums so staffing has probably been better in the last few days because additional shifts have been offered. So it feels more like normal staffing levels.
“That’s a good thing, because we’re hoping to clear patient backlogs, but it’s also a bit annoying as it’s taken the strike action to get normal staffing on these days. That’s what we should have all the time anyway, but because we are so short staffed we don’t get that. That just highlighted to me why we’re taking this action.”
The registrar, who will be on the picket line this week, said trust bosses were not putting undue pressure on staff to cover the work of the junior doctors over the 96-hour strike, but some people are being taken off secondment, such as an anaesthetic posting, and being brought back into emergency departments. “But they would have been working that day anyway, it’s just a change of roles,” she said.
The registrar said they are “hopeful” that emergency care will work as normal, based on last month’s strikes when there were “no issues” at her trust.
“I’m not worried that emergency patients coming in will come to any harm. It’s obviously going to be disappointing that some people’s appointments are going to be cancelled and we recognise the impact that will have on some people, but unfortunately everything else we’ve done to try and get the Government to listen hasn’t worked.”
Mr Barclay ramped up the war of words with the BMA over the weekend calling the union “militant”. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the Health Secretary said any agreement with the union had to be based on fairness.
“Asking for a pay rise that is more than eight times what the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting as inflation evidently does not meet that test,” he said.
“It seems [the BMA] are intent on maintaining a militant stance rather than working with the Government and NHS management to meet the best interests of their members and of patients.”
NHS England announced that staff will be asked to prioritise emergency and urgent care over some routine appointments and procedures to ensure safe care for those in life-threatening situations. The health body added that appointments and operations will only be cancelled “where unavoidable” and patients will be offered alternative dates as soon as possible.
NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis warned four days of walkouts by junior doctors will bring “immense pressures” on staff and services.
“The NHS has been preparing extensively for the next set of strikes but managing additional pressure doesn’t get easier as time goes by – it gets much more difficult, not only due to the sheer number of appointments that need to be rescheduled, but also that they can take time to rearrange with multiple teams involved,” he said.
“This is set to be the most disruptive industrial action in NHS history, and the strikes on Tuesday will bring immense pressures, coming on the back of a challenged extended bank holiday weekend for staff and services. Emergency, urgent and critical care will be prioritised but some patients will unfortunately have had their appointments postponed – if you haven’t, please do continue to come forward.”