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NHS ‘doesn’t just belong to junior doctors’, says health secretary as strikes continue | Politics News

The NHS “doesn’t just belong” to striking junior doctors and can’t be “switched on and off on whim”, the health secretary said.

Victoria Atkins turned up the heat in the government’s row with the British Medical Association (BMA) as their record-breaking walk-out continues.

Junior doctors in England are in the middle of a six-day strike over pay and conditions, the longest industrial action in NHS history.

A number of hospitals in England have pleaded for medics to leave picket lines and get back to work due to safety concerns, also known as derogation requests.

But this has sparked a row as the BMA has suggested the requests are “politically motivated”.

Ms Atkins promised to start talks with the BMA “in 20 minutes” if the strikes were called off.

Speaking on a visit to London Ambulance Service, she told the PA news agency: “I’ve said throughout this that, please, to the junior doctors’ committee, the moment you call off the strikes, I’ll get back around the table with you within 20 minutes.”

She said the strikes have to be called off for negotiations to happen, “because the NHS belongs to us all”.

“It doesn’t just belong to the junior doctors’ committee, and for the 1.3 million people who work in the NHS, as well of course for the tens of millions of people it looks after, the NHS cannot be switched on and off on whim.”

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The longest strike in NHS history

However, the BMA hit back calling it a “political choice” for Downing Street to “stick rigidly to its dogma of not negotiating while strikes are planned”.

Professor Philip Banfield, BMA council chairman, said: “In the past, the government waived this principle for the barrister strikes, so there is no reason for them to waste time and money by refusing to talk now.

“We are clear: we are ready to talk 24/7. Get back around the table, give us a credible offer and we can end these strikes right now.”

The government gave junior doctors an 8.8% pay rise last summer, with an extra 3% offered during the last round of negotiations towards the end of the year.

 Victoria Atkins MP
Victoria Atkins MP

But the BMA rejected the 3% offer, saying it does not make up for a real-term pay cut of nearly a quarter for junior doctors since 2008.

They want full pay “restoration” to reverse real-term cuts in pay since 2008-9, a new pay mechanism to prevent any future pay decreases against inflation and the cost of living, and a reformed pay review body to “safeguard recruitment and retention of junior doctors”.

The strikes are a headache for Rishi Sunak as the UK enters an election year.

The prime minister has staked his premiership on five key pledges which include cutting NHS waiting lists.

Although the backlog was at a record high before the industrial action broke out, over one million appointments have been cancelled or rescheduled due to strike action by junior doctors and other workers in the NHS in the past year.

Read More:
Junior doctors start their longest strike in NHS history – here’s what they want

While the government has managed to resolve other disputes, with a new pay offer recently made to senior doctors, the row with junior medics is showing no signs of abating.

More than 20 derogation requests have been submitted to the BMA for this round of strikes, but so far none have been approved.

Junior doctors and members of the British Medical Association (BMA) outside St Thomas' Hospital, London, as they take to picket lines for six days during their continuing dispute over pay. Picture date: Wednesday January 3, 2024.

The union said that NHS England and some trusts are refusing to provide evidence that they have undertaken steps to show they have “exhausted” all other sources of staffing before recalling medics from the picket line.

In a letter to NHS bosses, the BMA accused health leaders of misusing the system and bowing to political pressure to undermine the strike.

NHS England said they will “continue to engage with the BMA in good faith” and they will address the process for considering patient safety mitigations.

Ms Atkins, echoing Mr Sunak’s comments earlier on Thursday, said she backed NHS leaders in making the mitigation requests but this is being done “completely independent of government”.

She said the strikes are having “very serious consequences”, with 88,000 appointments cancelled during the last set in December.

Health officials have warned that this strike will be worse because it coincides with one of the busiest weeks of the calendar year, due to a rising tide of winter bugs and people storing up problems over the Christmas break.

On the first day of the strike on Tuesday, critical incidents were declared at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth and by the NHS in Nottingham.

Meanwhile more than a dozen hospitals said that emergency services were busy, with some reporting “extreme heightened pressure”.

‘The community stuff that makes us feel good doesn’t happen anymore’: Can councils survive spending cuts? | UK News

Nottingham Castle was built nearly 1,000 years ago, designed as an impregnable Norman fort.

Today it is a tourist attraction – but just as inaccessible.

The castle, owned by the council, has been closed since November, when its trust went into liquidation.

It is a symbol of a city and of a council that has struggled financially in the two years since it lost £38m on a failed company – Robin Hood Energy.

But it tells a bigger tale, of a local government system which is creaking – stripped of cash by Westminster and shaped by incentives and pressures that can lead councils to financial disaster.

Explainer – Energy bills, council tax, broadband and everything due to rise in price from today

Just down the road from Nottingham Castle is a centre called Base 51 that works with vulnerable young people.

More on Data And Forensics

Its funding from Nottingham City Council has been completely cut so it’s launched a crowdfunding campaign. But as things stand, it will have to vacate its premises in six months.

Three teenagers were there when Sky News visited.

“Before I started coming here I was going out and getting into trouble,” Deyarni Beedy-Lamonte said.

“But since I’ve started coming here I’ve been offered counselling. And obviously that’s helped get me onto a better path.”

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Local councils explained

Quinn Vahey says there’s little else on offer for teenagers in Nottingham. “If I weren’t here, I’d be getting in trouble every day basically. I’d probably get arrested by now.”

Nottingham City Council told Sky News: “Like all councils, the City Council has been receiving less and less in government grants over the past 13 years to pay for local services, which has forced us to cut services that we would prefer not to.”

Not all councils have launched an energy company, though, and seen it go quite spectacularly bust.

But the council is right about government funding – grants from central government have fallen nearly 90% since 2014.

During roughly the same period, councils have cut back on discretionary spending.

Take roads, for instance – fixing things like potholes. Around £1bn was spent across all councils in 2013.

Today, that’s fallen to £690m, even after adjusting for inflation. Or street lighting, which has lost £100m in funding.

One of the most famous councillors in the country (not a crowded field) is Jackie Weaver.

She went viral after a chaotic Zoom meeting of a parish council, in which she was told: “You have no authority here Jackie Weaver. No authority at all.”

But Weaver is chief officer at Cheshire Association of Local Councils and knows the subject inside out.

“As money has gotten tighter over, I would say, the last 10 years, probably, we’ve seen the district and county councils in Cheshire disappear, the county council disappeared altogether, contract so much that now they only perform their statutory functions,” she told Sky News.

“Now, that means all the kind of community stuff that is visible, that makes us feel good, doesn’t happen anymore. They don’t have any money to do it. They only focus on statutory obligations.”

Statutory obligations are services that councils are legally obliged to provide and the most important, and the most expensive, is social care.

Councils are spending an ever greater share of their budgets on social care, as the population ages and care demands become more complex.

Total council spending has gone from £26bn 10 years ago to £30bn today, again adjusted for inflation.

If you look at social care as a proportion of councils’ total spending, you can see just how much it’s eating up – from 57% in 2012 to 62% last year.

Three councils – Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Halton in Cheshire – spent more than three quarters of their total 2021/22 budgets on providing social care.

So: add a massive cut in central government funding to a huge increase in demand for services councils are legally obliged to provide and spending cuts in other areas seem inevitable.

This isn’t just a tale of austerity, though, but a deliberate redesign, dating back to changes to the system made back in 2010.

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Who pays the most council tax?

“Councils were told to be innovative, entrepreneurial – to act like any other company, and this involved investments, property, other sorts of investments, maybe outside their own local authority area,” Jonathan Werran, CEO of thinktank Localis, told Sky News.

“But the reason they were doing this was to earn revenue to fund the local public services upon which people depend and rely upon – trying to plug the gap.”

That “entrepreneurial” model may have suited some councils – but it has led others, like Nottingham, into choppy financial waters.

Nottingham issued a Section 114 notice – a formal declaration of financial problems – in 2021.

But it’s far from the only one.

Thurrock, Slough and Kent have all issued Section 114 notices within the last year.

Levelling Up: Areas with high levels of deprivation suffered the most from austerity

Woking, which has racked up £2bn in debt investing in property, has said it is in danger of doing the same.

“There’s definitely more and more councils that are in challenging financial positions – a number of councils over the last five years or so particularly have borrowed quite heavily to fund investment in property,” Tim Oliver, chairman of the County Councils Network, told Sky News.

The person who changed the system was Lord Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government in David Cameron’s coalition government, in 2010.

The idea behind the reforms was “essentially, to give [councils] more power and give them more say of how they spent things”, Lord Pickles told Sky News.

“And it’s called localism. And it really was designed to give power right down to the lowest level in local government.”

Sky News asked him about the councils that have issued Section 114 notices and whether it was a good idea to ask councils to be more entrepreneurial with public money.

“I want to say so, I think a lot of it boils down to a lack of due diligence,” he said.

“But the ones that we talk about, I think that there’s been a kind of a real problem when they’re sort of moved into this without properly thinking it through.”

Tom Cheshire speaks with teenagers in Nottingham

Every council Sky News spoke to said they need more money from central government.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told Sky News: “We are making an additional £5.1bn available for councils in England in the next financial year.

“We are also providing multi-year certainty to local government, outlining spending over the next two years to allow councils to plan ahead with confidence.”

Sky News understands that around £2bn of that new money is intended for social care.

Read more:
Why are councils spending less on potholes and bin collections?
See how much your council spends

But that represents just a 6.67% increase on the total amount spent by councils – at a time when inflation is significantly higher.

Councils will still struggle to afford social care, which means they will struggle to provide other services.

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And that may ultimately end up costing even more. Take Base 51 for example. As non-statutory spending, it can be cut.

But if those teenagers get into trouble and enter the social care or criminal justice system, that ends up costing more down the line.

“That’s the challenge we’re trying to work through now,” Mr Oliver told Sky News.

“You need to sort of double run it.

“So you need to have sufficient money to deliver the services to the people that are already in the system. But then equally you need to put funding and investment into prevention and early intervention.

“It is a false economy, not to invest in that early prevention. But that is the challenge around finding the funding to do both.”

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Labour demand council tax freeze

Local government can be an unglamorous subject but it has a huge impact on people’s lives: the fabric of our society is made up of many threads.

Many of them are small: street lights, bin collections, pot holes, community centres.

Some are huge, like social care.

And pick at those threads, year after year, and it adds up to the sense that the social fabric, the deal between citizens and state, is fraying.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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Gary Lineker says he doesn’t fear suspension from BBC role – and stands by his criticism of govt’s migrant policy | UK News

Match Of The Day presenter Gary Lineker has told reporters outside his London home that he stands by his criticism of the government’s asylum seeker policy and does not fear suspension by the BBC.

It follow a row over his adherence the BBC’s impartiality rules after the former England striker shared a Twitter video put out by the home secretary in which she unveiled government plans to stop migrant boats crossing the Channel.

“Good heavens, this is beyond awful,” he wrote.

Lineker, who has presented the BBC football programme since the late 1990s, wrote in another tweet: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries.

“This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman told ITV’s Good Morning Britain she was “very disappointed” by Lineker’s comments and branded them “irresponsible”.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said it is important for the BBC to maintain impartiality if it is to “retain the trust of the public who pay the licence fee”.