How UK Health Service Strikes Could Impact Patients

The NHS is a beloved institution, which has touched the lives of every UK citizen in one way, shape or form. Its current state leaves much to be desired, though, as a consequence of multiple different factors – from its chronic underfunding by the Conservative governments of the last ten years to the over-administration of staff by senior managers. The institution is being further tested by historic strike action over pay this year.

The NHS Pay Dispute

The NHS pay dispute broke into the news cycle at the start of 2023, with the formal announcement of a junior doctors’ strike. The main thrust of the strike was to achieve pay parity for junior doctors, in line with salaries at 2008-9. Over ten years, NHS staff have seen their pay cut in real terms, as wages have failed to rise with inflation.

The state of the economy makes this essential request difficult for the government to stomach, given the amount by which junior doctor pay has shrunk. In order to achieve parity, junior doctors would need to be paid over 25% more. Given the unwillingness of the government to budge, strike action has been taking place throughout the first half of the year.

Potential Patient Impacts

The strikes will unavoidably impact direct care and treatment for patients in the short term, where surgeries or consultations are re-arranged to account for staff absences. There could also be some further impacts felt by patients, where delays to appointments could lead to the misdiagnosis of dangerous conditions. Cancer misdiagnosis claims could result where patients aren’t receiving the care they need immediately, with potential long-term impacts on both health and personal lives.

The Reality

The operative word in the discussion of potential impacts for patients is ‘could’. While some impacts are unavoidable and indeed measurable, others are purely speculative. Meanwhile, the debate over patient safety in the short term minimises a key argument made by the striking NHS staff themselves, and a core component of the strike action: poorer patient safety and outcomes in the longer term.

A crucial point in the NHS dispute relates to the trend of underfunding that the institution has experienced over the past decade or so – starting with austerity measures introduced by David Cameron’s Conservative government and culminating in recent real-terms cuts to NHS pay. As funding dwindles for core services, patient outcomes worsen, and the institution loses vital existing and upcoming talent.

The short-term experience of delays to surgeries or other treatments is by no means analogous to the visceral damage caused – and yet to be caused – by failures in funding. Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, with a deal struck between health unions and the Health Secretary relating to the pay of over a million NHS staff, including nurses and ambulance workers; a 5% pay rise and a one-off payment have been accepted by 14 unions.



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