The longest strike in the history of the British National Health Service (NHS) started on Wednesday, as junior doctors took to the picket lines for a six-day walkout.
Over the past year, junior doctors have staged a number of walkouts to demand pay rises to match the UK’s rising cost of living. The nation’s doctors’ union said that junior staff have faced a 26% inflation-adjusted pay cut since 2008.
In December, junior doctors, who are qualified physicians still in clinical training, rejected a government proposal for a 3% pay increase this year on top of an 8.8% rise given last summer. They are seeking a 35% wage increase over several years. The government has said a pay rise of that size is unaffordable.
The strike comes after a year of unprecedented labor action in the UK medical sector, and is expected to increase the strain on the NHS’s already hard-pressed medical services as the busy winter season kicks in.
Strike is expected to cause massive healthcare disruption in peak winter months
A three-day strike in December caused nearly 90,000 appointments and operations to be postponed. This strike is likely to cause even greater turmoil, NHS officials believe. Most routine care will be put on hold for the duration of the strike as the NHS tries to make do without the junior doctors that make up nearly half of the medical staff. The industrial action’s timing makes it particularly disruptive: January is usually the NHS’s peak month, as winter infections and a bump in appointments after the Christmas holidays increase the pressure on health services. Over the course of 2023, more than 1.2 million appointments were canceled due to strikes in the long-standing pay dispute between the government and medical staff.
Strike is yet another blow to NHS struggling with massive patient backlog and budget crisis
NHS England has warned that without $1.25 billion to compensate for the cost of last year’s strikes, it will be unable to start tackling the record backlog of people waiting for care, which stands at 7.75 million. Even without the strike, the NHS is preparing for a challenging winter. Hospital bed occupancy remains over 90%, far above levels most medical experts believe is safe, the Financial Times reported. Financially, the NHS is on track to overspend its budget by almost $9 billion as years of underinvestment start to bite.
No matter who is in power, the NHS is likely to be remain a “political hot potato”
As the UK enters what is expected to be an election year, the NHS will be a “political hot potato,” The Economist reported. There will be no easy solutions to resolve the NHS crisis, so the next government will have to make tough choices about “which parts of the wider health system — general practice, social care or capital projects — need the cash most.” Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has maintained a double-digit lead in the polls for the past year, has promised sweeping health reforms and better pay for striking healthcare workers.