Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has pleaded with doctors not to take part in industrial action planned for today, saying the strike was “pointless” and would achieve nothing.
Doctors are walking out over the Government’s controversial pension reforms which will require them to work longer and contribute more to their plans.
Most will be taking industrial action for the first time, with the last dispute almost 40 years ago.
All non-urgent work will be postponed, the British Medical Association said, adding that although the action will be disruptive, doctors will ensure patient safety is protected.
Doctors will see anyone who is ill, or who believes they are ill, on the day of action but will not do paperwork.
Mr Lansley has claimed the planned action could see up to 30,000 operations cancelled, 58,000 diagnostic tests postponed and 200,000 outpatient appointments rescheduled.
He estimated that up to 1.25 million GP appointments would be pushed into the days and weeks following the action.
Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference in Manchester yesterday, he said the action would cause inevitable damage to services for patients.
“We cannot prioritise doctors over every other public sector worker when they have one of the most generous pension schemes in the country and will continue to do so.
“In seeking a more generous deal for doctors, the BMA (British Medical Association) are seeking a less fair deal for NHS staff overall. I don’t think that NHS staff or the public will understand or sympathise with that.
“So let me be clear – the strike is pointless. It will achieve nothing. We will implement this pension deal which is a fair and sustainable deal for NHS workers.
“All that the BMA is doing is creating uncertainty, discomfort and difficulty for patients, most of whom could only dream of getting a pension like theirs.
“Even at this late stage I would call on all doctors to think again, do the right thing and ditch the strike.”
Mr Lansley added the BMA instilled “more resentment than was necessary” by telling doctors the pension scheme agreed four years ago could still be applicable now.
“It was frankly wrong to say that such a thing was possible. A lot has happened since 2008. For the NHS pension scheme to be sustainable we had to have pension reform. That is true across all of the public sector.”
NHS leaders have said patients should not be dragged into the dispute, while local managers are called on patients to use services only if there is an urgent need.
The BMA said its members do not want to participate in a day of action but they feel that there is “no other option left”.
The action was announced last month after the BMA accused Ministers of pressing ahead with “totally unjustified” increases to pension contributions and a later retirement age for doctors even though a deal on pensions was agreed four years ago.
BMA chairman of council Dr Hamish Meldrum said: “The NHS pension scheme does not work by building up a pension pot – staff working now pay for the pensions of NHS staff who are retired. Doctors rightly pay more than lower paid workers and we are not seeking to change that.
“The scheme is currently bringing in more than it is paying out, removing any justification for the immediate hike in contributions that has been imposed. The spending envelope for public sector pensions that was imposed by the Treasury took no regard of the actual funding position of the NHS scheme or of the 2008 reforms.”
Meanwhile NHS trusts have been warned they could face intervention by the Health Secretary after a survey showed pressure to save money has led to restrictions in access to non-urgent procedures.
A freedom of information request by GP magazine showed that pressure to save money has led to restrictions in access to non-urgent procedures by 90 per cent of primary care trusts including hip, knee and cataract operations.