Health leaders are warning that increasing numbers of patients who have already had their operation cancelled due to industrial action are having their rescheduled appointments cancelled again – including growing numbers of cancer patients.
Ahead of a coordinated walkout by NHS consultants and junior doctors in England this week, the NHS Confederation has been told by several of its members that the escalated strike action by the BMA is putting more patients at risk than ever.
Health leaders told the NHS Confederation that:
• they are very worried about coordinated strike action across consultants and junior doctors, and the risk to patients is as high as it’s ever been.
• many hospitals are having to routinely cancel operations that have already been cancelled at least once – sometimes as many as three times. The clear risk is that the health of some patients will deteriorate the longer they are left to wait.
• this round of industrial action is seeing them forced to cancel a higher number of appointments and operations than before, with a bigger impact on cancer patients than in previous rounds.
• public frustration is growing as hospitals and other providers are often left in a position where they can’t tell patients when their operation or appointment will be rescheduled to.
• hospitals are routinely not booking in patients now, which means the true scale of the impact of strike action won’t be reflected in the official return’s data on cancellation numbers.
• health leaders can’t understand why the government doesn’t recognise the severity of the situation and are worried that Ministers see the situation as ‘business as usual’ now.
• they are worried about how the costs of industrial action – estimated to be more than £1bn already and rising – are hitting already stretched NHS budgets. If this continues, then it will either increase deficits or lead to cut backs elsewhere.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The worst-case scenario of NHS consultants and junior doctors walking out together has become a terrible reality. This is likely to be the biggest walkout the NHS has ever seen, will cause serious disruption, and put patients at the highest level of risk in living memory.
“Leaders are concerned that this dangerous situation is being underestimated by the government, telling us that this feels much different and more complex than previous strikes, with most reporting greater difficulties in rota planning and having to cancel huge numbers of elective operations and appointments in advance.
“This is much worse than before as we’re now seeing patients who have already had an operation cancelled due to industrial action be hit again with a cancellation to their rescheduled appointment.
“Leaders have also told us that this time round a higher number of operations and appointments for cancer patients are being cancelled, meaning that some of the very sickest patients maybe suffering the most.”
With the number of operations cancelled because of industrial action set to top 1 million, leaders are also deeply worried that their elective recovery has been severely compromised and are increasingly frustrated by a failure to acknowledge the impact strikes are having on their efforts.
As well as patients and recovery efforts, ongoing walkouts are affecting the morale of staff, including those who are striking, which is adding to pressures. One leader said that they had seen “a reduction in the number of individuals giving us an insight as to whether they are or aren’t striking. This risks more short notice cancellations and pressure on admin teams.”
Matthew Taylor said: “What our members are telling us suggests that we are becoming trapped in a vicious circle whereby industrial action is making working conditions much worse, resulting in a further desire among staff to strike, or worse, leave completely.
“Health leaders are understanding of staff frustrations around terms and conditions, but desperately want to get back to the business of delivering the best care possible for patients, improving services and reducing waits. At present they are stuck in a cycle of strike preparation and clear up, while the spectre of winter gets ever close.
“With the NHS already heading into a financial crisis, it can ill afford further squeezes to its budget, but recent winter funding is likely to be fast absorbed by the costs of industrial action, so far is estimated to stand at around £1bn, unless we see resolution.
“While there is no suggestion that industrial action is the cause of the backlogs, with over a decade of underfunding largely to blame, it is certainly not helping the NHS’s continuing efforts to reduce waiting lists and is beginning to make the Prime Minister’s pledge on targets look like a fantasy.
“If we’re to escape this increasingly nightmarish scenario for patients, health leaders and the NHS, we must see the government and the BMA talk to each other to find a solution that brings an end to this.”