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Strikes caused 22 ‘critical incidents’, government claims

Published on: 20 Sep 2023

The NHS has declared 22 ‘critical incidents’ due to disruption caused by industrial action since December, including having to transfer critical care patients, according to the Department for Health and Social Care.

Critical care and gynaecology patients have had to be moved to other hospitals due to staffing shortages, urgent cancer surgery and chemotherapy appointments have had to be rescheduled and urgent surgery on trauma patients “could not go ahead” during critical incidents declared in periods of strike action since December, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

There have been strikes by both doctors and Agenda for Change staff over pay during 2023, and Wednesday sees junior doctors and medical consultants strike on the same day for the first time.

The DHSC has not previously revealed critical incidents caused by strikes, nor details of them. Trusts typically have different triggers for declaring critical incidents, but they indicate severe strain on services, and it is not unusual for them to happen during high winter pressures. 

Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay also claimed on Tuesday afternoon that during the junior doctors’ strike in August, the British Medical Association “refused 17 applications for derogations where both local clinical leaders and their own local representatives had agreed it was necessary and reasonable to keep patients safe”.

However, the BMA described this claim as “deeply disingenuous” and said it was “categorically untrue” that such agreements had been made locally, as they “are subject to a national process agreed by both the BMA and NHS England”.

The claims have been made as DHSC has launched a consultation on statutory minimum service levels for hospital services during periods of strike action.

In the consultation document, Mr Barclay said: “Derogations are entirely dependent on goodwill from unions and staff. During some strikes, in some places, derogations have been agreed in good time, but in others, unions have not agreed them until very late or have not agreed them in advance of the strike commencing, which has particularly affected hospital services.

“This has resulted in staff not attending work when employers had understood they would do, and patient safety being put at risk while situations were resolved: urgent appointments have been cancelled on the day, wards closed unexpectedly, and emergency care compromised.

“The significant risk of harm to hospital patients when unions have refused to agree sensible voluntary derogations is the reason that we have decided to consult on whether, and at what level, to put in place statutory minimum service levels for hospital services.”

Philip Banfield, BMA council chair, accused Mr Barclay of “deceiv[ing] the public” over his derogation claims “in a bid to justify and push through anti-strike, anti-trade union legislation.

“A credible offer will pause these strikes, not continued attempts to demonise those caring for patients 24/7,” he said.

The consultation has been launched as the NHS faces its first-ever joint strike by consultants and junior doctors this week. Consultants began their strike on Tuesday 19 September and will be joined by junior doctors on Wednesday 20 September.

NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery has warned the consultation “risks worsening industrial relations at a time when we need government and unions to get around the table and enter into talks to avert further escalation and disruption to patient care”.

“This legislation – as well as the consultation announced today – doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action, including dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions,” she added.

The consultation will be open for eight weeks and will close at midday on 14 November.