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NHS leaders slam government’s ‘dangerous’ approach to industrial action

The government’s ‘business as usual’ approach to industrial action is dangerous and storing up long-term problems, according to NHS leaders in England.

The government’s ‘business as usual’ approach to industrial action is dangerous and is starting to store up long-term problems, according to NHS leaders in England.

The NHS Confederation is urging the government and unions to get back to the negotiating table, warning that the longer-term knock-on effects of repeated rounds of industrial action are not being recognised.

It says that official figures for the number of cancelled operations and appointments since strike action started in December is 835,000 and is set to pass one million by the winter and this is the tip of the iceberg, with the official figures only recording cancellations on the day.

Senior operations managers also say they are spending around a third of their time on strike activities and this is is preventing them from undertaking other planned work that is designed to improve the quality and efficiency of services.

In addition, key elective targets are being put at risk, with the next milestone – that no patient will wait longer than 65 weeks by the end of March 2024 – in danger of being missed if strike action continues into another winter.

Nine months of industrial action and no solution

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation said: “Industrial action damage control has become a dangerous ‘business as usual’ for the NHS – the very situation we warned the government to avoid – and nine months into strike action we are as far away from a solution for doctors as we have ever been.

“Health leaders are doing everything possible to reduce waiting lists and meet key targets and have been ramping up elective activity against pre-Covid levels. But repeated rounds of industrial action are chipping away at the NHS’s ability to achieve future, more challenging, targets. Our message to the government is: imagine what the NHS could deliver if we could only find a way to bring strike action to an end.”

Mounting costs associated with industrial action are becoming a huge issue with NHS organisations routinely having to pay senior staff premium rates to cover striking staff for urgent and emergency care. NHS England estimates that the total cost of strike action so far is £360m. To compound the problem, some senior operations managers have told the NHS Confederation that they are unable to afford to deliver extra elective activity over weekends as they cannot cover higher ‘weekend rates and weekend theatre’ costs.

Primary care and other parts of the NHS are also increasingly having to deal with the fallout from patients who have had their planned operations cancelled, often multiple times.

Rory Deighton, director of NHS Confederation’s Acute Network added: “Leaders are also extremely worried about how and when they are going to prepare for the future – not least this coming winter – with a disproportionate amount of their time taken up by industrial action. Some have estimated that it is taking up around a third of operations managers’ time, preventing them from undertaking other work that would improve productivity.

“They could be forgiven for wondering just how much progress they could’ve been made, and where the NHS might be now, had the situation been resolved sooner and their time not spent repeating lots of the same work.

“All parties say that nobody wants this situation, yet no one is talking to each other about how to put an end to it. We’ve got to see some further serious, responsible conversations happen soon that begin to chart a path out of this mess. Both sides need to look at what they can do to solve this ahead of what will be a seriously difficult winter, regardless of staff walkouts.”


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