The NHS in Devon has warned care is being restricted to dire emergencies as junior doctors walk out on strike.

Emergency, urgent and critical care will be prioritised by the NHS as strike action by junior doctors across England sees major disruption of services, with thousands of patients facing postponements to routine care. 

Industrial action by junior doctors who are part of the BMA and the HCSA began today (Monday, 13 March) at all trusts in England for 72 hours – the longest continuous period of strike action in recent months. 

During this time, the NHS will prioritise resources to protect emergency and critical care, maternity care and where possible prioritise patients who have waited the longest for elective care and cancer surgery.

However, with around 61,000 junior doctors making up half of the medical workforce and no national derogations having been agreed, the action is expected to see some of the most severe strike disruption of NHS services to date and have a huge impact on the drive to reduce waiting lists for elective care. 

To make sure safe care continues to be available for those in life-threatening situations, NHS staff will be asked to prioritise emergency and urgent care over some routine appointments and procedures – but these will only be cancelled where unavoidable and patients will be offered an alternative date as soon as possible. 

While reiterating that patients should still come forward for the care they need and attend any planned appointments unless contacted to reschedule, the NHS’ top doctor urged the public to use 999 and A&E for life-threatening emergencies only during the planned industrial action and to make use of NHS 111 online and other services for non-urgent needs. 

NHS Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “The NHS has been working incredibly hard to mitigate the impact of this strike. While we are doing what we can to avoid having to reschedule appointments, there’s no doubt that disruption will be much more severe than before and patients who have been waiting for some time will face postponements across many treatment areas. Where there are postponements, we’ll be trying to re-book as quickly as possible. However it is vital to attend planned appointments unless told otherwise. 

“We have no option but to prioritise emergency and critical care as a matter of patient safety, and we’re asking the public to help us and use 111 online as well as local services like general practice and pharmacies as first points of call, but people should of course always use 999 in a life-threatening emergency.” 

To ensure help can be prioritised to those who need it most, the NHS is asking the public to continue to access healthcare services appropriately, using NHS 111 online or calling 111 where possible for non-urgent needs on strike days.

111 can direct you to the best place to get help, with call handlers able to triage to the most appropriate service, including advising where attending A&E urgently may be needed. 

Dr Nigel Acheson, Chief Medical Officer at NHS Devon, said: “Our hospitals in Devon have been extremely busy over the weekend, and this has carried on into this week when we are also seeing significant disruption because of industrial action.

“If you visit an Emergency Department this week, you may be re-directed to a service that better suits your needs. I am urging people with minor injuries and illnesses to seek advice from other local health services, such as minor injury units and pharmacies, so that our busy Emergency Departments can focus on the people with the most urgent needs.”

The NHS will contact anyone who will need to reschedule appointments so if you have not been contacted then you should attend as usual.

However, as the scope of action has escalated, this has increased pressure on a service recovering from one of the most challenging winters on record.