Patient care “rests on a knife edge” ahead of the most significant round of NHS strikes in a decade next week, health officials are warning.
NHS leaders said they are working at “full pelt” to make sure emergency and other life-saving care can continue safely during a four-day walkout by junior doctors in England from Tuesday.
But they warned that “huge uncertainty“ remains over the level of cover they will be able to secure in time from other professionals to fill key shifts.
Even providing “basic patient safety” is a worry for some, said the NHS Confederation.
The last junior doctors’ strikes in March saw thousands of consultants provide cover, but health leaders do not expect a repeat performance as many consultants either have annual leave booked due to the holidays or are more reluctant to put themselves forward.
One hospital leader said that “where consultants covered last time, they have built time in lieu. Additionally the next strike falls over Easter, when a lot of consultants had booked annual leave. This is all impacting on elective waiting lists.”
Health leaders say they are having to plan for the worst to protect patient safety, including by cancelling more appointments and elective procedures than they would like to, so that they can keep hospital bed occupancy levels, currently standing at over 95%, as low as they can and support staff working next week to focus on urgent and emergency care services.
Last Easter there were over 70,000 more calls to NHS 111 from Good Friday to Easter Sunday compared with the previous Friday to Sunday – a 37% increase.
One hospital leader told the NHS Confederation that they are facing a “catastrophic risk” with the escalated strike action and that while it will officially last for four days, its impact will be felt over 11 days due to reduced cover during the preceding Easter weekend and then during the weekend that will follow the end of the strike.
They said they have never worried more about the impact a strike could have on patients than this one.
A three-day walk-out last month saw more than 175,000 appointments and procedures having to be postponed.
Based on this, the figure from next week’s strikes could be as high as a quarter of a million.
One health leader told the NHS Confederation that “basic patient safety will be compromised” with emergency departments in particular likely to be “utterly overwhelmed.”
“They want to send a reassuring message to their local communities but they are deeply concerned about not being able to provide safe care as they cannot rely on the same staffing levels as they have done with previous strikes.
“They are doing their best to mitigate any risks, which unfortunately means making the difficult decision to cancel more planned treatments and appointments than they would have liked to have done so that they can prioritise the most life-critical services.
“The NHS will be open for business but this will not mean business as usual.
“We urge the Government and trade unions to do everything they can to call off these strikes and to step up public communications urgently so that people who need healthcare understand what is available and at stake.”
The four days of strikes will come immediately after the four-day Easter bank holiday weekend. They will run from 6.59am on Tuesday 11 April until 6.59am on Saturday 15 April.