Starmer’s strongest warning yet to striking doctors: I won’t give 35 per cent rise

Sir Keir Starmer has warned striking junior doctors in his strongest words yet that he will not give them the 35 per cent pay rise they are demanding.

Junior doctors are set to start their 11th walkout on Thursday morning in a bid to apply political pressure during the general election with a refusal to back down over their pay demands.

The latest five-day strike comes during the hottest week of the year and off the back of a cyberattack on London hospitals which has already resulted in thousands of operations being cancelled.

This week will also see NHS services deal with major events such as Glastonbury and the London Pride march.

The head of NHS England, Amanda Pritchard, and leading health officials have sent warnings about the pressure expected on hospitals over the next week.

Labour had appealed to doctors to await the outcome of the election before taking industrial action again, with the polls strongly indicating that Sir Keir and his party will be taking power on 5 July.

But the opposition leader used his firmest language yet to make clear he will not bow to pressure for a huge pay rise. He told The Independent: “We’re not going to pay 35 per cent, we’ve told them that upfront. They know that.

“With negotiations, we need to find a way through it. But you know, to be absolutely blunt, we’re not going to 35 per cent; they know that and we are being clear about it from the outset.”

Starmer will not back down on junior doctors pay demands (Getty)
Starmer will not back down on junior doctors pay demands (Getty)

Since December 2022, more than 1.4 million appointments have had to be rescheduled due to NHS strikes – with 91,000 postponed during the five-day strike in February. Overall, the strikes are estimated to have cost the health service £3bn.

It is not clear how many doctors will stay away on Thursday but during the February strikes just over 21,000 were off in a single day. There are an estimated 75,000 junior doctors in England.

Sir Keir insisted that further investment in the NHS under Labour would be linked to the country’s financial growth.

He explained in the long term it is about creating the wealth in the UK to fund public services like health care without the need to raise taxes again.

He told The Independent: “We’re absolutely lined up, particularly on what needs to happen to the NHS. But I have spent the best part of the last two years on this conundrum, which is: why has growth been so low in the last 14 years?

“I personally think it’s the Achilles heel of our country, and that we have failed to take the tough decisions to deal with it.”

In response to his stance on pay, the British Medical Association (BMA) has warned Sir Keir “not to repeat the same mistakes as the present prime minister”, if he forms the next government.

The union added that Labour would not have to address the 26 per cent real terms pay cut seen by doctors all at once.

On Monday, Ms Pritchard sent an email to healthcare executives about the impending strikes: “This week looks set to be challenging on a much broader footprint, with warm weather bringing the potential to trigger additional demand for urgent and emergency services, and industrial action from Thursday causing significant disruption once again, particularly to planned care.”

She also said specific conversations with the BMA were underway over mitigations for south London hospitals following the cyberattack.

Dr Nick Murch, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, also warned the pressure on NHS services, caused by extreme heat, would be exacerbated by the strike action.

He added: “It is likely heat-related issues will filter through even after the temperature drops which will add to the strain on an already fragile system.”

The current Conservative government, Sir Keir and his shadow health secretary Wes Streeting have said that the junior doctors’ demands are unaffordable.

Earlier this month Mr Streeting was pressed on whether a Labour government would meet the demand for a 35 per cent pay rise. He said if any government were “as much of a pushover” as to do that then unions would come back for more money the next year.

He has previously told The Independent Labour intends to be “upfront” with doctors on the 35 per cent and that addressing pay would be a “journey” not an “event”.

Junior doctors in England are set to walk out for five days from Thursday (PA)
Junior doctors in England are set to walk out for five days from Thursday (PA)

While Labour has promised to repeal the Tories’ minimum service legislation designed to reduce the impacts of strikes in the NHS and on public services, Sir Keir was unable to say when questioned during televised debates what Labour will do if the junior doctors refuse to compromise on their pay demands and continue striking.

They have offered to get round the table and discuss a range of issues including pay.

BMA junior doctors committee co-chairs Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi said in response to Sir Keir’s comments: “Throughout this dispute, we’ve only ever said that junior doctors should not be paid less than they were 15 years ago, but that this does not have to be awarded all at once.

“Mr Starmer’s own shadow health secretary has described the road to restoring junior doctors’ pay as ‘a journey, not an event’.”

They said if Labour does form the next government they look forward to negotiating with meaningfully but warned Sir Keir he “would do well not to repeat the same mistakes as the present prime minister, and empower his health secretary to negotiate with us directly.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said patient safety will be the priority during industrial action and that NHS England is working closely with unions to discuss this.