Senior nurses are preparing to step into the breach and provide extra support to nursing teams during strike action by junior doctors due to take place from next week.
The first in a series of strikes announced by the British Medical Association will affect emergency care only, starting at 8am on 1 December and lasting 24 hours.
“Some clinical nurse specialists will cancel their clinics to provide support in other areas”
Full walk outs are also planned for December 8 and December 16.
On Wednesday, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had agreed to talks through the conciliation service Acas, after initially refusing when the strike ballot results were revealed last week.
However, doctors’ leaders have so far said the industrial action will go ahead in spite of the talks.
In the meantime, NHS England has asked trusts to put together contingency plans to protect patients and ensure services can continue to operate safely.
These are likely to involve more senior nurses on duty, including specialist nurses cancelling clinics to provide extra support, Nursing Times has learnt.
Plans may also include implementing Hospital at Night-style arrangements – designed to ensure appropriate cover by multi-professional teams – during day shifts.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has issued advice to members saying they should go to work as normal, but must not do any tasks they are not qualified for.
Nurses should not do voluntary overtime nor do bank or agency shifts to cover the work of striking colleagues, the college told its members in advice issued earlier this week.
“It is the employer’s responsibility to plan appropriate cover,” said the RCN guidance. “They will have had sufficient time to take appropriate steps for staff cover, staff safety and patient safety.”
Nurses should report any difficulties or concerns in delivering care to their manager immediately, the RCN added.
Nurses who are due to be on leave over strike days may be asked to cancel their time off but trusts cannot force them to do so.
“Each trust will be doing their own different thing, which may include bringing in staff”
It will be up to individual trusts to decide on their approach to holiday. “Where annual leave is pre-booked this will be the subject of negotiation,” according to official sources.
Trusts have been in discussion with local BMA branches and may look at providing “different models of care in different places based on risk assessments”, the sources added.
Many trusts approached by Nursing Times said they were still finalising their contingency plans.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said it would be cancelling most non-urgent operations and a “significant number” of outpatient clinic appointments due to take place during the industrial action.
“We are currently assessing the expected impact of the industrial action on other staff groups,” said a trust spokesman.
“Nurses will not be asked to undertake any additional duties which would be inappropriate for them to carry out,” he said. “Some clinical nurse specialists will cancel their clinics to provide support in other areas.”
“It is the employer’s responsibility to plan appropriate cover”
NHS England has said it expects trusts to make their contingency plans based on local circumstances and demand, with an emphasis on maintaining patient safety.
“Each trust will be doing their own different thing in different ways, which may include bringing in staff including locums,” one official from the national commissioning body told Nursing Times.
“They can’t put a moratorium on leave, so if people are booked in for leave they can have their leave and trusts will have to work out what cover they will need for those people who are away,” said the official.
They said: “NHS England has asked trusts to put measures in place to mitigate any potential impact the industrial action junior doctors take. Trusts will need to assure us they have contingency plans in place to ensure services are safe whether that’s GPs or nurses or others.
“Clearly there is going to be an impact and we are trying to forewarn people and patients by saying help us to help you – if you can avoid those days please do. We don’t want people hanging around in waiting rooms and so on – it’s just common sense,” they added.