The British government said it was seeking to hold talks with doctors in its state-funded health service in a last-ditch bid to avert a series of mass walkouts, potentially the first such strikes for four decades.
Junior doctors, or doctors in training who represent just over half of all doctors in the National Health Service, said on Monday they would stage a 24-hour stoppage next week, followed by two further 48-hour strikes.
It will affect non-emergency care and lead to the cancellations of many operations.
Doctors’ strikes are rare in Britain. The last time junior doctors took industrial action was in 1975 over non-payment for work done outside the standard 40-hour working week. A new contract was agreed the next year.
Planned walkouts before Christmas were suspended to allow for further talks in the dispute which centres on pay and conditions, but on Monday the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), said these discussions had failed to make progress.
“In order for them (the strikes) to be called off, the government would have to recognise the deeply held concerns of junior doctors and be able to go rather further than it has been able to push itself over Christmas,” Mark Porter, the BMA chairman told BBC Radio.
Ninety-eight percent of more than 37,000 junior doctors had voted to take part in industrial action, including strikes, in protest against the new employment contract proposed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The BMA and doctors have criticised the contract, which changes the way they are paid for anti-social hours, saying it does not provide proper safeguards against doctors working dangerously long hours.
The government says the new contract is part of measures to ensure patients get the “same quality of care across the week”.
“Our absolute priority is patient safety and making sure that the NHS delivers high-quality care 7 days a week – and we know that’s what doctors want too, so it is extremely disappointing that the BMA have chosen to take industrial action which helps no-one,” Hunt said in a statement.
He said the mediation service Acas had been asked to reconvene negotiations to try to settle the dispute.
The NHS delivers care for free to the whole population and accounts for a third of government spending on public services. The service often features as one of the most important issues during elections and recent struggles during winter have led to concerns as to whether the NHS is adequately funded to maintain high standards.