More than 2,500 consultants, GPs and senior doctors have signed a letter to David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt in support of their striking junior colleagues, offering assurances that patients will be kept safe during next week’s walkout.
Junior doctors represented by the BMA are planning their first all-out strikes on 26 and 27 April – the first time in the history of the NHS that they have threatened a full withdrawal of labour.
The strikes come amid a row over new terms and conditions that resulted in Hunt, the health secretary, threatening to impose the new contract on trainee medics as part of his vision for a “seven-day NHS”.
In the letter, senior doctors say they are disappointed that negotiations between their junior colleagues and the government have broken down.
“As senior clinicians who deliver healthcare on the frontline on a daily basis, we understand their frustrations and their actions,” it says. “Stretching an already limited resource across [seven] days does not improve patient care, rather [it] diminishes it, and will also result in the demoralisation of an entire generation of junior doctors.
“We are keen to work with you to improve patient care, but this will come with clinical engagement, not disempowerment.”
Training, continuity of patient care and junior doctors’ work-life balance will suffer under the new contract, which will lead to a worsening retention crisis within the NHS, they say in the letter, which is to be delivered to Downing Street on Saturday.
“We, the senior specialists, will keep the NHS safe for our patients and your constituents, despite much publicity to the contrary,” the letter adds. “Not only are we duty-bound to do so, but we will gladly provide this emergency cover to ensure that the juniors can take this action with the complete confidence that their patients are safe.”
The letter counters criticism of the strike by the General Medical Council, which had issued tough new guidance to doctors on their responsibilities during industrial action. The GMC said medics who took part in the strike could be struck off if their actions “had caused patients serious harm”.
Among the prominent signatories are: Clare Gerada, the former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners; Clive Peedell, the co-leader of the National Health Action party; Peter-Marc Fortune, the president elect of the Paediatric Intensive Care Society; and Raman Uberoi, the president of the British Society of Interventional Radiology.
Peedell said: “We fully support the junior doctors strike because the imposed new contract will have catastrophic long-term consequences for patient care.
“There is already a shortage of junior doctors and serious rota gaps in key emergency services. The new contract will actually discourage young doctors from choosing the highly pressured emergency specialties, worsening the current situation.”
In the event of a strike, routine elective services would be cancelled so that emergency cover could be covered by consultants, middle-grade doctors and GPs, he said.
Prof Nigel Standfield, the head of the postgraduate school of surgery at Imperial College, London, said: “This government lacks insight. Its health service policy is in ruins and failure has nothing to do with the dedicated workforce trying to maintain an NHS by hardwork and passion.
“Gross underfunding with financial wastage, poor non-clinical and specialist advice, and top-heavy management need to be urgently reviewed. Talk to the juniors and resolve this immediate crisis by diplomacy.”