Revealed: How NHS strikes put thousands of sick children in peril

Exclusive: More than 20,000 paediatric treatments and surgeries were cancelled – including 400 lifesaving operations – during industrial action as hundreds of thousands of youngsters remain on waiting lists

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Monday 01 January 2024 17:29 GMT
Co-chair of junior doctors committee apologises to patients for strikes

Hundreds of children’s appointments – including for lifesaving operations and cancer treatments – have been cancelled on each day that NHS strikes took place over the last year, as hundreds of thousands of youngsters languish on the waiting list for treatment, The Independent can reveal.

More than 20,000 paediatric treatments and surgeries were shelved because of the walkouts, while the families of 400 children were told that their lifesaving operations had been cancelled.

With junior doctors due to stage the longest strike in NHS history this week – for six days, starting on Wednesday – the problem is set to get worse.

Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, warned that long waits for children can be particularly damaging, and can have a lifelong impact as treatment is often time-critical.

She said that children are seldom prioritised in national policy-making, and urged the government to put children’s needs “back on the agenda”.

The cancellation figures, obtained by The Independent, provide the first snapshot of the impact of strike action on children’s care. The data, which was supplied in response to freedom of information requests, comes from around a third of hospital trusts in England – meaning that the true number of cancellations is likely to be in the tens of thousands if the figures are extrapolated across all 124 trusts.

Nurses, doctors and ambulance workers are among those who walked out this year in protests over pay and conditions, resulting in as many as 50 strike days between December 2022 and December 2023.

It comes as the latest figures show that the waiting list for children’s treatment hit 408,565 in October last year, up from 375,000 the previous month, despite the overall NHS waiting list falling from 7.7 million to 7.1 million during the same period. There are currently 19,000 children who have been waiting more than a year for care.

Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy for NHS Providers, said: “The elective waiting list for children and young people was already rising before the strikes started last year. The fact that industrial action has led to paediatric appointments and operations being pushed back therefore exacerbates an already worrying situation.

“It’s vital the government and health unions reach an agreement so that all patients, including children and young people, no longer have to pay the price for the dispute.”

River Heenan, a 13-year-old who needed life-changing spinal surgery, was devastated when their operation was cancelled with just a few days’ notice as a result of the junior doctors’ strikes in August.

River has severe scoliosis and kyphosis, conditions that caused their spine to be curved and left them reliant on a wheelchair. Speaking to The Independent, they said they were angry at the government’s failure to end the strikes.

River’s mother, Claire Heenan, added: “River was so bent over with the kyphosis that their breathing was difficult and their stomach was being crushed by the fact that their spine was bent, almost like a question-mark shape. It was horrible when they cancelled the surgery less than a week before.

“The surgeon was gutted. He told River: ‘We have to do it, but we can’t do it – there are not enough doctors to look after you afterwards.’ I was devastated because my child was in a lot of pain and suffering quite badly.”

More than 1.2 million appointments and operations were rescheduled in 2023 as a result of strikes, costing the NHS an estimated £2bn.

The NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, has suggested that the true impact is likely to have been even higher, as hospitals often stop scheduling patient appointments ahead of strike days, meaning that these appointments would not have been counted as cancelled. On Monday, the chief executive of the confederation, Matthew Taylor, spoke of the “unprecedented” risk to patients, with parts of the NHS “skating on very thin ice”.

Life-changing surgery

River was first referred to spinal surgeons at Alder Hey in Liverpool in November 2022, but was not given a date for surgery until August last year.

The 12-hour surgery needed three doctors to carry it out, and there was only one specialist surgeon in the country who was able to undertake the complex operation.

River’s spine was causing them considerable pain before their surgery in November
River’s spine was causing them considerable pain before their surgery in November (Claire Heenan)

When it was cancelled, surgeons said River would need to have their operation within two months or there was a risk their condition would become untreatable. “For me, when it got cancelled, it felt like the whole world stopped... we were left dormant,” they said.

Their mother added: “We were told at one point, if [River’s condition] got much worse, they wouldn’t be able to do it, because it would be so bad they might end up snapping bones. So we were counting down to the surgery not being done, which would have left River in a wheelchair for the rest of their life.”

The operation was eventually rescheduled for November last year, and River said it has changed their life.

“I'm going to be able to do so many things I thought I could never do. I go to a stage school where I do acting, dancing and singing, and when it got to such a bad point, I thought ‘I can never do it again.’ That was my dreams and my future gone down the drain. But now, with this surgery, I can pursue my dreams.”

River after their surgery
River after their surgery (Claire Heenan)

Claire Heenan said: “The government needs to have some humanity, and understand that every decision made actually affects people’s lives – especially children, whose whole lives could be changed hugely.”

Data suggests that there are 812 children, across 43 hospitals, waiting for specialist spinal treatment.

Karin Smyth, the shadow health minister, said: “Thousands of children have seen vital appointments cancelled thanks to the Conservatives’ failure to negotiate an end to these strikes. The government’s stubborn refusal to meet with NHS staff could have put children’s lives at risk.”

Dr Latifa Patel, the chair of the British Medical Association representative body, said: “The sad reality is that waiting lists were growing significantly even before any industrial action. We recognise that patients are having to wait longer for care, but this is the result of years of chronic underinvestment in the NHS and its workforce by the government.

“As healthcare professionals, we care for our patients to the best of our ability, but it can be extremely challenging in the face of increasing staff shortages and deteriorating pay and working conditions. This is why nurses decided to strike last December, and why junior doctors and consultants joined them this year.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We recognise the challenges that the NHS has faced because of industrial action, and are working with them to mitigate the impact of this. We have provided £800m to ensure that patients continue to receive the highest quality care over the coming months, and to ease pressure on hospitals.

“Despite industrial action, 18-month waits have been reduced by more than 90 per cent from their peak in September 2021.”

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