Calls for talks to end young doctors’ strikes

  • By Nick Triggle
  • Health correspondent

Doctors leaders and ministers are being urged to start formal pay talks following a breakthrough in a deal with other NHS staff in England.

But the British Medical Association (BMA) and the government are not yet in talks to resolve the doctor’s dispute.

Junior doctors in England took part in a three-day strike earlier this week.

The strike, which affected scheduled and urgent care, caused major disruptions, NHS bosses said.

Thursday’s new pay offer for NHS staff, including nurses, ambulance workers and physiotherapists, has the support of most unions and has brought hope that the strikes that have plagued the NHS over the winter are a thing of the past.

This offer, which is not yet a foregone conclusion, includes a one-off payment of at least £1,655 to acknowledge the pandemic.

The 14 unions involved will now put it to their members to vote on, with the three largest – the Royal College of Nursing, Unison and the GMB – all backing the deal.

But the Unite union has said it cannot recommend the offer, but will put it to a vote and support whatever decision they make.

The junior doctors’ pay dispute is far from resolved, with the BMA calling for a 35% pay rise, which it says will undo 15 years of austerity.

The government made a last-minute offer for formal wage talks last Friday, three days before the strike.

However, the BMA rejected it, saying the preconditions were not acceptable.

The government was only willing to discuss the remuneration of trainee doctors for the next financial year, along with the possibility of a one-off payment for the past year in exchange for calling off the strike.

According to sources, this was the same offer made to the unions acting on behalf of other NHS staff.

Following Thursday’s breakthrough, Health Secretary Steve Barclay called on young doctors to call off the union action and enter into talks, saying the request for a 35% pay rise was “not affordable”.

“We have offered the trainee doctors the same conditions that were accepted by the other unions and I hope that the trainee doctors will respond,” he said.

Thursday’s salary offer now puts the responsibility in the doctor’s dispute on both sides to show a willingness to come around the table.

Letters have been exchanged between Mr Barclay and the BMA over the past 24 hours, but no agreement has yet been reached on starting talks.

Privately, many observers say the greatest pressure is on the doctors. If other frontline NHS staff who are generally paid less than junior doctors are willing to accept a 5% raise and a one-off payment of £1,600 to £2,500, why should doctors put out 35% more, they ask wonders.

Matthew Taylor, from the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders will urge young doctors and the government to use this deal as a way to enter into talks to address that dispute.”

And Sir Julian Hartley, the head of NHS Providers, added that there needs to be “urgent movement in the talks” and said both sides needed to “redouble” efforts.

Louise Ansari, head of patient watchdog Healthwatch England, said: “We are now pushing for a speedy resolution of pay disputes between doctors and the government to avoid further delays in patient care.”

The question of how any wage agreement will be paid remains. Ministers said they could guarantee there would be no impact on frontline services as a result of Thursday’s pay offer to NHS staff.

Mr Barclay said there would be discussions with the Treasury about how it would be funded and that the Department of Health would look at areas of underspending and administrative savings to help fund the wage deal.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the wage deal “affordable for the taxpayer” and said it continued to deliver on its pledge to cut inflation in half.

Strike action has also been suspended by most unions in Wales and Scotland as new offers are considered. The GMB in Scotland has accepted the Scottish offer, worth 14% over two years.

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