Patient care “rests on a razor’s edge” ahead of the biggest round of NHS strikes in a decade next week, health officials warn.
NHS leaders said they are working “full steam” to make sure emergency and other life-saving care can continue safely during a four-day strike by young doctors in England from Tuesday.
But they cautioned that there remains “great uncertainty” about the level of coverage they will be able to get in time from other professionals to cover key shifts.
Even providing “basic patient safety” is a concern for some, the NHS Confederation said.
He called for an urgent solution to the salary dispute between the unions of young doctors and the Government.
The latest young doctors’ strikes in March saw thousands of consultants provide cover, but health leaders don’t expect a repeat performance as many consultants have annual leave booked due to the holidays or are more reluctant to show up.
A hospital leader said that “where the consultants covered last time, they have built time in their place. Also, the next strike falls on Easter, when many consultants had booked annual leave. All of this is having an impact on the elective waiting lists.”
Health leaders say they have to plan for the worst to protect patient safety, including canceling more appointments and elective procedures than they would like so they can maintain hospital bed occupancy levels, currently at more than 95%. %, as low as they can and support staff working the next week to focus on urgent and emergency care services.
Last Easter there were over 70,000 more calls to NHS 111 from Good Friday to Easter Sunday compared to the previous Friday and Sunday, an increase of 37%.
A hospital leader told the NHS Confederation that they face a “catastrophic risk” with the escalation of the strike and that while it will officially last four days, its impact will be felt for 11 days due to reduced coverage over the weekend. Easter week before and then over the weekend following the end of the strike.
They said they had never been more concerned about the impact a strike could have on patients than this one.
A three-day strike last month had to postpone more than 175,000 appointments and procedures.
Based on this, the number of strikes next week could reach a quarter of a million.
A health leader told the NHS Confederation that “basic patient safety will be compromised” and that emergency departments in particular are likely to be “completely overwhelmed”.
Dr Layla McCay, NHS Confederation director of policy, said: “Healthcare leaders are bracing for the biggest strikes in a decade with many aspects of patient care on a razor’s edge.
“They want to send a reassuring message to their local communities, but are deeply concerned that they won’t be able to provide safe care, as they can’t count on the same staffing levels they’ve had in previous strikes.
“They are doing everything they can to mitigate any risk, which unfortunately means making the difficult decision to cancel more planned appointments and treatments than they would have liked in order to prioritize the most life-critical services.
“The NHS will be open for business, but this will not mean business as usual.
“We urge the government and unions to do everything possible to cancel these strikes and to urgently step up public communications so that people in need of medical care understand what is available and what is at stake.”
The four-day strike will come immediately after the four-day Easter holiday weekend. They will be from 6:59 am on Tuesday, April 11 to 6:59 am on Saturday, April 15.