Fears over patient safety have been raised after junior doctors announced five days of strike action.
Moves by junior doctors for a “full withdrawal of labour” over the controversial new contract for training medics have sparked alarm.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the decision “totally irresponsible” and the General Medical Council (GMC) insisted patient need must be the priority.
GMC chief executive Nick Dickson warned about the impact on patients.
‘The decision of the British Medical Association’s leadership to call on doctors in training in England to take rolling, all-out industrial action is unprecedented and represents a serious escalation of this dispute. It is obviously a matter of great concern for everyone, especially for patients, and when so little time has been given for the NHS to make contingency plans.
‘We recognise the frustration and alienation of doctors in training and indeed their right to take industrial action. However, we issued advice earlier in this dispute both to senior doctors and doctors in training, and we will now consider whether further guidance is needed. The first priority must be to protect patients from harm.”
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA council, refused to say how strongly the body had backed the strike.
He would not be drawn on claims that the BMA supported the strike by a knife-edge 16-14 split.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “The council has decided, after a long and exhaustive debate, to support this strike action, and today the council is united behind junior doctors in their struggle in this, as I believe will be the profession.
“And I will not engage with you in talking about the long and difficult debates that we had inside council over what the best thing to do was.”
Dr Porter said it was not the case that all GP and consultant representatives were opposed to the strike action.
The strikes will take place between the hours of 8am and 5pm for five days between Monday September 12 and Friday September 16, the BMA said.
This action will be followed by “further dates” which are yet to be confirmed, a BMA spokeswoman said.
Mr Hunt said 100,000 operations and around one million appointments would be hit by the action.
The Health Secretary said he was surprised by the move as the BMA had previously recommended the new contract as a “good deal”.
“Now they are saying we are going to have a devastating strike, the like of which the NHS has never seen before,” Mr Hunt told the BBC.
Mr Hunt said he was open to dialogue, but insisted the best way forward was implementation of the contract.
However, the BMA said junior doctors had been left with “no choice” but to start fresh strike action after failed attempts to resolve the remaining issues with the contract.
Six strikes have already taken place across England during the dispute, causing disruption to hundreds of thousands of patients who have had appointments and operations cancelled.
In May, it looked as though a breakthrough had been reached in the dispute after both sides agreed to a new deal.
Then in July, the Government announced it would impose a new contract after junior doctors and medical students voted to reject the contract brokered between health leaders and the BMA.
The BMA said it will call off the strikes if the Government agrees to stop the imposition.
Dr Ellen McCourt, who chairs the BMA junior doctors’ committee, said: “Junior doctors still have serious concerns with the contract, particularly that it will fuel the current workforce crisis, and that it fails to treat all doctors fairly.
“Since July, the BMA has made repeated attempts to work with the Government to address the concerns that junior doctors have raised about the contract. Genuine efforts to resolve the dispute through talks have been met with an unwillingness to engage and, at times, deafening silence from the Secretary of State, leaving junior doctors with no choice but to take further action. This is despite a pledge from Jeremy Hunt that his door is always open.
“The Government has consistently said this is about creating a seven-day NHS, when junior doctors already work weekends and it’s been shown that the Government has no answer to how it will staff and fund extra weekend care.
“With just weeks before the first group of doctors is moved onto the imposed contract, time is running out. This contract will be in place for many years, it will have a direct impact on patient care and whether we can attract and keep enough doctors in the NHS. It is too important to be rushed to meet a political deadline.
“We have a simple ask of the Government: stop the imposition. If it agrees to do this, junior doctors will call off industrial action.
“This is not a situation junior doctors wanted to find themselves in. We want to resolve this dispute through talks, but in forcing through a contract that junior doctors have rejected and which they don’t believe is good for their patients or themselves, the Government has left them with no other choice.”
Shadow health secretary Diane Abbott said Mr Hunt should “scrap” the contract and re-enter talks with junior doctors.
“Given the intransigence of the Government, this decision was always likely,” she said.
“The crisis in the NHS is deepening, with closures of hospitals and key departments across the country while nearly all waiting times are rising.
“The Government is not properly funding even a five-day NHS. A seven-day NHS is simply impossible without more resources.
“It is not too late to change course. Jeremy Hunt should stop posturing about imposing a junior doctors’ contract, scrap it, and re-enter talks.”