The British government said on Tuesday it was looking to force some healthcare staff to work during industrial action, as senior and junior doctors in England prepared to take coordinated strike action for the first time.
Senior doctors, known as consultants, began a 48-hour walkout on Tuesday and will be joined by junior doctors on Wednesday. They are due to hold three further days of joint strike action next month.
Doctors have said they will operate Christmas Day levels of service, providing emergency care.
“What we’re announcing today is how we protect time-critical hospital services, so things like chemotherapy, things like dialysis, because we recognise the right to strike is important, but we’ve got to balance that with also the right of patients to key treatments,” health minister Steve Barclay told Sky News.
He said France and Italy already had such measures in place.
The government passed legislation in July which requires striking workers in key sectors such as rail and fire services to provide minimum levels of service during industrial action, but this did not include hospital staff.
The government says around 900,000 appointments in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) have already been cancelled as a result of doctor strikes this year.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made cutting NHS patient waiting lists one of his five top priorities ahead of a national election expected next year. More than 7.6 million people in England are on a waiting list for hospital treatment.
In July, junior doctors were awarded a 6% pay rise and £1,250 ($1,547) for 2023/24, but the British Medical Association trade union says they are still facing a pay cut in real terms.
Consultants also received a 6% rise but the BMA, which represents nearly 200,000 doctors in Britain, said they are seeking a rise above the level of RPI inflation for the 12 months to April – 11.4%.
“We are simply asking for fairness and are demanding an end to real terms pay cuts and a fair mechanism for this pay loss to be corrected,” Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA’s consultants committee, said in an open letter to Sunak and Barclay.
But the government does not plan to reopen negotiations.
“In terms of pay for this year, we’ve set a fair and final position,” Barclay told Times Radio.