Junior doctors in England are to stage the longest strike in NHS history at a time when the service is at its “most stretched”, an expert has said.

Medics are set to walk out for six days in a major escalation in the bitter row with the Government over pay.

The industrial action, from 7am on Wednesday January 3 to 7am on Tuesday January 9, comes at one of the busiest times of the year for the NHS as it grapples with increased pressure from winter viruses and a rise in people coming forward who delayed seeking help over the holidays.

The NHS has warned that the strike action, which could see up to half of the medical workforce on picket lines, could cause “the most difficult start to the year the NHS has ever faced”.

It said emergency and urgent care will be prioritised during the strikes and almost all routine care will be affected.

But patients are being urged to still come forward to seek care if they need it.

NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “This January could be one of the most difficult starts to the year the NHS has ever faced.

“Six consecutive days of industrial action comes at one of our busiest periods – the action will not only have an enormous impact on planned care, but comes on top of a host of seasonal pressures such as Covid, flu, and staff absences due to sickness – all of which is impacting on how patients flow through hospitals.

“Our colleagues across the health service are doing their very best for patients every day, with extensive preparations in place, but there’s no doubt they are starting 2024 on the back foot – not only will action impact next week, it will continue to have a serious impact in the weeks after, as we recover services and deal with additional demand.

“However, I cannot stress enough that people who need care must come forward as they usually would – using 999 and A&E in life-threatening emergencies and 111 online for everything else.”

Meanwhile, Professor Yvonne Doyle, former medical director at Public Health England, told Times Radio: “The NHS is resourceful and it is making arrangements to try and cover as much as possible and putting messages out to the population about what we can do as well to help at this time.

“This is the period of the year when the NHS is always at its most stretched.

“There is quite a lot of infection at the moment: more flu, quite a lot of Covid, there is a good deal of norovirus.

“There are things that everyone can do to actually help with that, and also look after themselves. Top of the list, for those who are eligible, is to get vaccinated, but also if you have got infection, keep away from people… try and limit your contact with people.

“And the other factor at this time of the year is cold weather – so older people, and people who are vulnerable to stroke, (should try to) to keep warm.”

Dr Rob Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi, from the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Junior Doctors Committee, said that even “at this late hour” the Government could put forward a credible offer.

The Department of Health and Social Care urged the BMA to “call off their strikes and come back to the negotiating table”.

The BMA said junior doctors’ pay has been cut by more than a quarter since 2008.

Coronavirus – Tue Oct 19, 2021
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, warned that strikes will have an ‘enormous impact’ (Toby Melville/PA)

In summer 2023, the Government gave junior doctors in England an average rise of 8.8%, but medics said the increase was not enough and ramped up strike efforts.

Late last year the Government and junior doctors entered talks with a view to breaking the deadlock, but after five weeks of negotiations the talks broke down and medics called more strikes.

Junior doctors from the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association union will also join colleagues on picket lines.

Consultants and specialty and associate specialist (SAS) doctors have since agreed a deal with the Government, which is now being put to members.