Over 300,000 operations and appointments at risk of cancellation during junior doctors’ strikes over festive period

21 December 2023, 05:46 | Updated: 21 December 2023, 08:24

Junior doctors' strikes could put more than 300,000 patients at risk of surgery and appointment cancellations.
Junior doctors' strikes could put more than 300,000 patients at risk of surgery and appointment cancellations. Picture: Alamy

By Jenny Medlicott

More than 300,000 appointments and operations could be cancelled during the nine days of junior doctors’ strikes to be held over the festive period.

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Members of the British Medical Association (BMA) will begin a three-day walkout from 7am on Wednesday, before going on strike again for six days from January 3.

New analysis shows the walkout could see the NHS waiting list, which currently sits at 7.7 million, rise above eight million for the first time in history.

Of the 25 days of strike action already taken by junior doctors this year, analysis revealed that an average of 35,500 appointments were cancelled on each day.

If cancellations continue at the same rate as during this period, then some 320,000 patients could see their appointments and operations affected by the upcoming strike dates, The Times reports.

Speaking to LBC’s Nick Ferrari, Health Secretary said the strikes were “disappointing” as she said the government is doing everything it can to prepare for the walkout.

She said: “When the junior doctors committee called the strikes, that has very very serious consequences for the NHS.

“NHS England, I liken it to an oil tank, it cannot be switched on and off at will.

“We’ve had managers, clinicians, medical directors up and down the country diverting resources and attention away from the challenges that the NHS faces every winter into trying to ensure that the system remains stable and safe during the strikes. We cannot turn that around on a whim”.

Ms Atkins would not be drawn on whether she had a fresh offer to make to junior doctors.

Asked if it would be possible to avert the strikes set to commence on January 3, Ms Atkins said: “That is the most difficult week in the NHS calendar which is why it is particularly disappointing they have chosen this week over all the other weeks of the year to do this.

Nick Ferrari is joined by Health Secretary Victoria Atkins

The strikes could see more than 300,000 patients affected.
The strikes could see more than 300,000 patients affected. Picture: Alamy

“My message to the junior doctors’ committee is clear: call off the strikes and we will be straight back around the negotiating table.

“We are doing everything we can do prepare for that week in January but it is going to be very very difficult.”

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticised the junior doctors for their strikes, urging them to get back around the negotiating table.

His comments came after there was a brief fall in the NHS waiting list, from 7.77 to 7.71 million, last month. The fall was the result of a break in industrial action, he said.

NHS bosses have warned that the Christmas strike action is likely to be the most disruptive yet - hitting as cases of Covid and the flu are on the rise.

NHS leaders and charities have warned the strikes pose a significant threat to patient safety, particularly the elderly.

“This will be a disruptive period — three days this week, and six days, the longest period of strike action that we’ve seen early in the new year,” Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said.

“Of course that’s after the new year festivities where we see activity growing, so it’s that second period of strike action in January that is giving us the most concern.”

Hospital chiefs have been pleading with junior doctors to provide exemptions for 'life and limb' care in a bid to keep patients safe.

Cheltenham General Hospital, Cheltenham, UK.
Cheltenham General Hospital, Cheltenham, UK. Picture: Alamy

It comes after Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust announced that Cheltenham A&E has temporarily closed from now until 8am on Saturday 23 December due to the strikes.

It will also close again on Monday 1 January at 8pm for 24 hours.

The Cheltenham General Hospital's A&E unit will deal only with minor injuries and illness, diverting A&E cases to another hospital.

Victoria Atkins, the health secretary, said that elderly patients could be forced to spend the festive period stranded in hospital due to no doctors being present to discharge them.

“We know that these strikes, if they continue today, tomorrow and on Friday, it will mean that people will stay in hospital longer than if the strikes had not happened because hospitals will not be able to discharge them,” she said.

“So, there will be people spending Christmas in hospital rather than at home. That is an enormous cost for individuals and for their families.”