Thousands of operations likely to be cancelled during NHS strikes, trusts chiefs warn

‘It’s the waiting list that is going to be hit,’ says one NHS official about upcoming industrial action

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 08 November 2022 15:41 GMT
Related: Grant Shapps says nurses going on strike ‘won’t help anyone’

Thousands of hospital surgeries are likely to be cancelled as NHS leaders prepare for unprecedented strike action, The Independent has been told.

Most operations apart from cancer care are likely to be called off when nurses take to the picket line, with NHS trusts planning for staffing levels to be similar to bank holidays.

Multiple sources say they are almost certain that the upcoming Royal College of Nursing ballot will result in strike action. Results are expected to be finalised on Wednesday.

One senior NHS official told The Independent: “[Strike action] is definitely the way it’s going, of course, it’s not just the RCN that’s balloting, the BMA are behind for junior doctors.

“Trusts are looking at the totality of it. It’s the waiting list that is going to be hit, massive questions over waiting lists, and we’re going to lose days of activity in terms of addressing that growing pressure.

“The more we see strike action the harder it is, the risk is [that] the rate of recovery [of waiting list] slows.”

They added: “The unions normally provide bank holiday cover and maintain emergency service basically.”

An analysis by the London School of Economics last month showed that nurses’ pay has fallen by 20 per cent over the past decade.

The researchers also said at least 32,000 nurses are quitting the NHS every year, in part because of the erosion of living standards due to the real-term drop in pay.

The results of the RCN ballot could see nurses strike before Christmas but the union has the option of carrying out strikes during a six-month window, The Independent understands.

The RCN results come as the union Unite launched a ballot over strike action for 100,000 NHS workers, including blood test staff, dental professionals, and psychotherapists, while the GMB union is balloting 15,000 ambulance staff.

Sources told The Independent that any ambulance strike action could result in only the most urgent calls, category one and two, being responded to, while less urgent category three or four calls may be refused.

Last week, NHS England published a letter asking trusts to begin preparing for strike action.

One NHS chief told The Independent said: “I’m working on the basis that we will agree on bank holiday levels of service provision, and non-elective ward provision. I don’t think we’ll be doing any elective care other than cancer surgery.”

“That’ll be harder to define for some services in the community and where you draw the line around elective provision there.

“I think we’re concerned we’re going to get less notice this time than we did with junior doctors, but I think we can mitigate that by getting the plan in place.

“The mood music seems to be it [strike action] is going to happen and it will hit hard. Staff are more upset than we perhaps realised. The big thing everyone is really worried about is, is less about the clinical staff as you can easily divide them into elective care or not.

Another chief said: “We will try not to cancel patients’ [care], you’re never quite sure how many staff will be striking, and they’re not wanting to talk about how they’re going to protect services yet.”

“There are challenges everywhere, if you went back a few years ago we would have had more headroom to cope with this, but it’s been so challenging for a long time with ongoing high levels of sickness that it’s just hard to see how we’d cope with any reduction.

“We expect the continuation of emergency services as clinicians will not want to put that at risk.

“The thrust of their action is to ensure they have colleagues around them in the future. It’s less so about their individual earnings and more so about recruitment and retention … they’re not a militant group of staff and so they feel very passionately about what they’re trying to do for the future of the NHS.”

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