NHS leaders have urged the public to avoid risky activities on Wednesday for fear they may be left helpless and unable to reach A&E during the ambulance strike.
The industrial action by staff across England and Wales comes as the ongoing pay dispute between ministers and NHS workers looks poised to descend into an increasingly bitter and disruptive war of attrition that could go on for months.
Health chiefs made the remarkable intervention of asking people to avoid getting drunk during the strike, four days before Christmas, as the potential for disruption in transporting people to hospital is so severe.
The two bodies representing hospitals and other providers of NHS care in England staged an 11th hour bid to head off Wednesday’s strike by appealing directly to Rishi Sunak for an intervention to end the standoff, warning him that otherwise people “will suffer unnecessarily”.
Thousands of patients, including some with serious conditions, will have to make their own way to the hospital on Wednesday – often by taxi – because ambulance services are prioritizing those with life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest or difficulty breathing.
In a sign of how stretched services will be, the Yorkshire ambulance service has told GPs that they should advise patients to get relatives or carers to drive them to A&E, because “the risks of delayed transfer would outweigh the risks of clinically unsupervised transport”. It comes only a day after nurses staged their second strike action of the month.
In an unusually strongly worded letter, the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers told the prime minister of the “deep concern among NHS leaders about the level of harm and risk that could occur to patients tomorrow and beyond”.
They continued: “We’ve rarely heard such strong and urgent expressions of concern from those running our hospitals, ambulance services and other vital health services.
“The fear of NHS leaders is that the risk to patients is only going to get worse with future strikes planned. That is, unless your government is able to reach an agreement with the trade unions to bring a swift end to the dispute.
“We urge you to do all you can to bring about an agreed solution, otherwise more members of the public will suffer unnecessarily,” they added.