Tens of thousands walk out over government proposals to amend contracts that doctors say will remove safeguards.
The Red Cross has warned of a “humanitarian crisis” in the British National Health Service (NHS) as it struggles to cope with overcrowding and a lack of resources.
Teams from the medical charity were deployed at a number of hospitals in the East Midlands region of England in early January to alleviate the pressure on local hospitals.
The Red Cross helped transport patients to and from hospitals and its volunteers assisted discharged patients to prepare for recovery at home.
In a statement on Friday, Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson said the government needed to act immediately to “stabilise” the service.
“The British Red Cross is on the front line, responding to the humanitarian crisis in our hospital and ambulance services across the country,” he said.
“We call on the UK government to allocate immediate funding to stabilise the current system and set out plans towards creating a sustainable funding settlement for the future.”
Speaking to the BBC, Professor Keith Willett, director of acute care for NHS England, disputed the Red Cross description of the situation as a humanitarian crisis.
“On the international scale of a humanitarian crisis, I do not think the NHS is at that point,” he said. “Clearly, demand is at the highest level ever. But also our planning is probably more comprehensive than it has ever been.
“In many ways, this is a level of pressure we have not seen before and the workload that the NHS is being asked to shoulder in terms of medical treatment and personal care is very high.”
Willett went on to ask members of the public to relieve pressure off hospital services by using non-emergency helplines, local GP services and pharmacies.
Critics, however, blamed government mismanagement for the deteriorating standards of services the NHS provides.
The opposition Labour Party’s shadow-health secretary Jonathan Ashworth described the Red Cross statement as a “badge of shame” on the ruling Conservative Party.
“The Red Cross being called in to help in our hospitals is just the latest staggering example of how the NHS is now being pushed to breaking point,” Ashworth said in a statement.
“More patients are languishing on trolleys and in ambulance queues. Meanwhile, hospitals have been desperately pleading on Twitter for patients to stay away from A and E [Accident and Emergency],” he added.
“The stark reality is the NHS is facing a crisis this winter and in need of urgent help from Ministers.”
Dr Enam Haque, a GP trainer and lecturer at the University of Manchester Medical School, said the government had not responded to the rising cost of treatment and staff shortages.
“The NHS crisis, contrary to that portrayed in the media, is not due to migrants or health tourism, but due to many years of underspending by the Conservative government,” Haque said.
“There is also a crisis in the profession with doctor shortages making the NHS less sustainable.
“This has been brought about by an unfair contract being imposed on junior doctors, which puts patient safety at risk through longer and unfair working conditions.”
Haque called on the government to increase funding for the NHS and ensure better working conditions for its staff but said he feared deteriorating standards were a prelude to eventual privatisation.
“My fear, though, is that the crisis is being deliberately created in order to make the NHS fail and, therefore, allow privatisation through the back door. This will lead to health inequality and worsening health outcomes for people.”