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NHS Providers boss: Tackle consultant strikes to unlock progress on juniors

Published on: 9 Oct 2023

Ministers should focus on resolving the consultants’ pay dispute first, and use an agreement to help facilitate a deal with the junior doctors, NHS Providers’ boss Julian Hartley has told HSJ.

The former CEO of Leeds Teaching Hospitals said tackling the consultants’ dispute could help create the conditions for progress on the junior doctors’ dispute, because the positions of both ministers and the British Medical Association in the latter row felt “more entrenched”.

Sir Julian said: “We really should be spending the next six weeks or so focusing on getting a resolution to the consultant strike because that at least would remove some of the disruption, and indeed the cost, and put us in a better position heading into winter.”

The NHS Providers CEO said he was in favour of “anything that could break the deadlock”.

He added: “There need to be redoubled efforts from government and BMA to sort out the consultant strike to create conditions for trusts and systems to focus on the challenges they’ve got, including winter, finances, quality, safety, because otherwise they’re spending a lot of time trying to manage the impacts of strike action.”

“I think the consultants dispute could be resolved in the coming weeks, if people really got around the table and focused on it.

“That would be a positive step to creating the conditions to tackle the junior doctors dispute and possibly even averting [specialty doctors and specialist grade] doctors going to a formal ballot as well, in terms of seeing that there’s been progress made in the right direction, and how that can be done… we could generate that momentum for a step change in relationships.”

However BMA council chair Phil Banfield dismissed the suggestion as allowing different groups of doctors to be “picked off”.

Speaking at Labour’s annual conference, Prof Banfield said: “I don’t think that particularly helps the situation, because the specialist doctors are balloting to see if they will take a formal ballot. So, trying to settle with one group, and picking off one branch of practice, does not solve the underlying dispute…

“There is a window of opportunity at this point while there is a short pause [in strike action by consultants]…So, it’s firmly in the government’s court if they wish to solve or perpetuate this dispute.”

The comments follow three days of joint consultant and junior doctor strike action last week and NHS England racheting up its rhetoric about the damage being done by the strike by accusing the BMA of endangering cancer and urgent heart patients.

The BMA rejected NHSE’s claims and accused NHS managers of making “several planning failures”, including by trying to maintain non-urgent activity, meaning more urgent patients could not be prioritised.

In the same week ,NHSE revealed that industrial action up to the start of August had cost more than £1bn. Sir Julian called on the Treasury to commit to funding the costs of strike action to give trusts a “fighting chance” of recovering their financial plans.

The BMA has offered to suspend consultant strikes, if the government agrees to take the dispute to the conciliation service Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The government has previously said the 6 per cent pay increase awarded to consultants earlier this year is final.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said doctors had been given a “fair and reasonable pay rise”. 

He said: “I share the concerns of NHS leaders about the risk to patient safety posed by so-called ‘Christmas Day cover’ when demand is far higher than at Christmas. The frequency of these debilitating strikes is also making it incredibly difficult for services to recover from their effects.”

The BMA declined to comment.