In an unusual move, the British Medical Association has unveiled three dates in December for planned industrial action by junior doctors in England ahead of the outcome of its current ballot, which closes next week.

Around 40,000 are currently voting on whether strikes should go ahead, after a breakdown in negotiations between the trade union and the government over changes to the junior contract, which include an 11% rise in basic pay but cut in unsociable hours.

The BMA said it was releasing the dates for planned action early “to minimise the impact on patients and fellow doctors, and allow employers time to prepare”.

First it proposes a partial walk out within emergency care, from 8am on Tuesday December for 24 hours, during which time junior doctors would provide the same level of service that happens in their given specialty, hospital or GP practice on Christmas Day. 

This will then escalate to full walk-outs from 8am to 5pm on Tuesday 8 December and from 8am to 5pm on Wednesday 16 December.

In an email to all members in England, BMA council chair Mark Porter said he wants to give the NHS as much notice as possible. “It sounds like an oxymoron when talking about industrial action, but we genuinely want to minimise any disruption to other NHS staff and, above all, to patients,” he wrote, and stressed that the dispute “is with the government and our ballot for industrial action is a last resort in the face of their continued intransigence”.

Risking patients?

But there are fears that the move, during the winter months when demand is at its greatest, could put patient lives at risk. “We know this will have a huge impact on patient care and we urge the BMA to avoid putting patients and the NHS in this position by returning to talks with us,” said Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers.

“Employers across the NHS will be extremely disappointed and anxious about the difficult situation they will find themselves in to make sure work schedules are met and patient care is not compromised”.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt reportedly told the media that “threatening extreme action is totally unwarranted and will harm vulnerable patients. Refusing to talk to a government that wants to improve weekend care for patients and reduce doctors’ hours can only damage the NHS”.

The BMA previously said it would not re-enter talks with the government until it removes the threat to impose a new contract on trainees before the details have been agreed.