Thousands of young doctors were expected to walk off the job in England on Wednesday, dealing another blow to the country’s already-reeling National Health Service and raising concerns about a cascade of canceled medical appointments and surgeries.
The strike, which was to start at 7 a.m. and is scheduled to last six days, would be the longest labor action yet by the doctors, who have been clashing with the government over wages and work conditions since December 2022. It comes at an especially difficult moment for the health service, when the flu and otherillnesses are filling upemergency rooms, outpatient clinics and other medical facilities.
The junior doctors — qualified physicians who are still in clinical training — have been seeking a 35 percent wage increase, which they say is needed to counteract a more than 25 percent cut in real wages since 2008.
The government has settled pay disputes with nurses and ambulance workers, but its standoff with the union that represents the young doctors has been particularly intractable.
The waiting list for procedures at N.H.S. hospitals has reached 7.7 million people, up from 4.6 million before the coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged last year to cut waiting times, making it one of five bedrock goals of his Conservative government. Instead, the list has lengthened by 300,000 people.
Analysts estimate that previous strikes by senior and junior doctors added about 210,000 people to the waiting list because of missed appointments. The latest walkout could swell the number of canceled appointments and operations to more than a million, they said. These range from elective knee replacements to urgent cancer surgery.
“We’re continuing to see a massive cumulative impact on N.H.S. services and our hard-working staff as they maintain safe patient services while tackling a record backlog,” Chris Streather, the regional medical director for the N.H.S. in London, said in a statement. “This time of year is always very busy for the N.H.S., and six days is the longest time that doctors have gone on strike.”
Junior doctors account for roughly half the physicians in the N.H.S., so when they walk out, it ripples through system, from emergency rooms to operating theaters. The doctors complain about long hours, relentless pressure and pay that has failed to keep pace with double-digit inflation, though that has eased recently — issues that have afflicted other health systems, including those in the United States.
For Mr. Sunak, whose party is trailing the Labour Party by double-digits in the polls, the woes in the N.H.S. pose an acute political risk. While the cost-of-living crisis has ebbed slightly, analysts say the perception that Britain’s public services are broken could spell doom in an election that Mr. Sunak said will happen this year.