More than 4,000 operations across the National Health Service in England are reportedly being rescheduled as the first doctor’s strike in 40 years gets underway.

Hundreds of thousands of junior doctors have joined picket lines across the country in a 24-hour walk-out over what they claim are unfair and unsafe contract conditions being imposed by the government.

Doctors say they are taking the action because the government has failed to address key concerns over contractual safeguards on safe working, and recognition of unsocial hours. 

“Junior doctors feel they have been left with no option but to take this action,” said Johann Malawana, chair of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee. “Our door is open to talks, but the government must address our concerns around safe working patterns and ensure the contract recognises the long, intense and unsocial hours which junior doctors do”.

However, in a letter to junior doctors in training, NHS Employers insists that it is “categorically not the case” that the new contract is unsafe and will require longer hours for less pay.

“In the wake of Mid Staffs the NHS has made huge strides in improving patient care - and making sure doctors are supported to deliver safe care is an essential part of that. However it is also the case that we can do more and a particular area of concern is the extent to which we deliver consistently high standards of care across seven days,” the letter notes, and argues that the new contract “tries to do this in a way that improves support, training and work-life balance for junior doctors whom we recognise work long hours in challenging situations”. 

Further action planned

Conciliation talks between the BMA, the government and NHS Employers crumbled last week, and so further industrial action is planned for Tuesday 26 January, with only emergency care provision, and Wednesday 10 February, on which there will be full withdrawal of labour, unless a resolution is reached beforehand.

Public backing for the action seems strong; according to an IPSOS Mori poll commissioned by BBC Newsnight and the Health Services Journal, 66% of people surveyed supported the strike excluding emergency care, while 44% even backed a full walk-out.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has now appointed Sir David Dalton, chief executive of Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, to lead negotiations on behalf of government and the NHS in new talks with the BMA.