The chief executive of a busy NHS Hospital Trust has described preparing for winter amid ongoing industrial action by consultants and junior doctors as “going into a really tough battle with one hand tied behind your back”.
Matthew Trainer, CEO of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, was speaking exclusively to Sky News on the first day of an unprecedented joint action by consultants and their junior doctor colleagues.
He said: “I think we’ve cancelled more than 10,000 outpatient appointments here. We’ve cancelled more than a thousand non-urgent surgeries and a small number of urgent surgeries.
“What we’re increasingly seeing is actually we’re not cancelling things, because we’re not even booking stuff in any more for the strike days.
“It feels like we’re walking into a really tough battle with one hand tied behind our back.”
Mr Trainer, who has 12 hospitals under his care including the Queen’s Hospital in Essex and the King George Hospital in Ilford, said his patients and his staff were suffering because of the industrial action by NHS health workers. which is now in its 10th month.
He said: “It’s about the patients who are not getting access to the care that they need. And the second thing, it’s about the staff that we’re asking, at times, to work in some really tough circumstances.
“I regularly meet our emergency department teams because they tend to bear the brunt of it. Emergency departments are the last unrationed part of health care, they’re the only place you can walk into and guarantee someone will see you. And as a result, we’re seeing real pressures piled on to them.”
Some 900,000 NHS appointments have been cancelled across England since December last year.
Hospitals now routinely do not book appointments for strike days, with the dates announced at least six weeks in advance. That means the true figure of disruption to elective care is likely to be much higher.
Mr Trainer added: “I think one thing that worries me is actually that we’re finding the strikes less difficult to cope with because we’re becoming so practised at them.
“The NHS is good at crisis management and responding to incidents. Actually, we now know how to stand up a strike rota. We know to take down all the planned care activity. This shouldn’t be something we’re used to doing.
“You know, this should remain a real outlier for us, to have cancelled 10,000 outpatient appointments since April is not normal. And we should not become accustomed to this as a way of doing business in healthcare.”
But this is likely to be the case for months to come, deep into another crippling winter.
The junior doctors and consultants have long mandates for strike action and show no sign of calling them off.
Their union, the BMA, will feel vindicated in its action after learning that the public is more than twice as likely to blame the government for the ongoing strikes than the doctors’ trade unions, by 45% compared to 21%, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by Sky News.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made bringing down waiting lists one of his key pledges.
But that is not achievable unless there is a resolution to what is becoming an increasingly bitter and protracted dispute. It also means trusts are not able to prepare for the fast-approaching winter.
Mr Trainer continued: “We had a really tough winter, last year. January was as bad as I’ve ever seen it in terms of the pressures. Primary care is also seeing huge increases in demand.
“They’re seeing more people than ever before, but they can’t keep up with the demand, and mental health services are also dealing with enormous backlogs for care and emergency care.
“So we’re trying to get ourselves ready for that. But what we know at the minute is that unless there’s some kind of resolution to this, we’re going to have to deal with that regular disruption of strike action.
“And I think we’re getting to a position now where it’s making it very hard to plan for what’s going to be the toughest period of the year in the NHS.
“We’ve got clinical staff trying to deliver good quality health care in some really challenging environments at the minute. And this is just adding to the strain they’re feeling and adding to the pressures on the NHS.”