Health Secretary Victoria Atkins has refused to get back round the table with junior doctors until they call off their industrial action.
The medics, who make up nearly half of all doctors in NHS England, began their second of three strike days on Thursday over pay and conditions, with a further six walkouts planned for January.
Talks between their union, the British Medical Association (BMA), and the government collapsed earlier this month when ministers failed to put a final offer on the table before the union’s deadline – leading to strike dates being set.
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Reports suggested an additional pay rise of around 3% – on top of the 8.8% recommended by the independent pay review body in April – was put on the table by the government.
But the BMA said that would amount to real-term pay cuts for its members following years of below-inflation pay rises, with only a rise of 35% bringing pay back to 2008 levels.
And while both sides say they are willing to negotiate, the government is standing by its position of not holding talks while strikes are on the table, and the BMA will not cancel the action, branding ministers “an irrational partner”.
Speaking to Sky News, Ms Atkins said she was “very much keen to negotiate with junior doctors”, adding: “If they call off the strikes, we will get straight back around that table and continue to negotiate.
“Because, of course, there isn’t just an economic cost to these strikes. There is also a very human cost to this, and there will be people at home watching this programme who are in pain, who are in distress and whose appointments have been cancelled over these three-day periods.”
Asked if there would be extra money for junior doctors, the health secretary said “yes”, and that she wanted to “find fair and reasonable settlements with those parts of the workforce who have either taken part in industrial action or who are concerned”.
But pushed over why, if there is cash available, she won’t kick off talks immediately, Ms Atkins said: “NHS England is a little bit like an oil tanker. The moment that a strike is called, that has very very serious consequences for the whole of the system.
“So for the last week and a half, managers, medical directors, clinicians up and down the country have been devoting days and days of preparation to try to keep the system stable during these strikes and we have to have certainty from the junior doctors committee whereby they call off the strikes, then we can go into negotiation.”
She added: “I cannot flick NHS England on and off like a switch. And by the way, this is the principle we apply across the public sector. And so it is right that we treat people… when unions are having discussions with government, it’s right that we treat people the same.
“And we have always said if there are strikes happening at the moment, affecting patients, affecting the public, we will not negotiate, but the moment they call them off I will be back around that table.”
Co-chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, Dr Robert Laurenson, told Sky News on Wednesday that it was “completely reckless” for the government to have an offer they were willing to make, but refuse to do so during the strikes.
“It’s actually madness and it’s the behaviour of an irrational partner,” he said. “The government have the power to sort this out by giving us something sensible to put to our members, and until they do that, we have nothing to put to our members.”
Elsewhere in the UK, junior doctors in Wales are planning a 72-hour strike from 15 January, while junior doctors in Northern Ireland are being balloted for potential strike action.
Staff in Scotland have already come to an agreement with the Scottish government.