Health secretary Steve Barclay said people should use their “common sense” when it comes to what activities they do on Wednesday during NHSambulancestrikes in England and Wales.
Mr Barclay insisted the people should still call 999 with life-threatening injuries, as up to 25,000 ambulance workers walk out again in an ongoing dispute with Rishi Sunak’s government over pay.
It comes as health unions announced that they will refuse to submit evidence to the NHS pay review body for the next wage round while the current pay dispute which has sparked a wave of strikes remain unresolved.
NHS leaders have warned that there will be additional stress on the system owing to this being a larger strike than one held in December – with call handlers now striking alongside paramedics and drivers.
Asked whether the public should change their behaviour to avoid risky activities, Mr Barclay told Times Radio: “We’re saying to people to use their common sense. People can see that today is going to be a very challenged day for the ambulance service.”
He added: “The focus will be on those life-threatening incidents and ensuring those are addressed, but there will be strain on the rest of the system. Of course, if it is genuinely life threatening, then they should phone 999.”
NHS England has told patients to continue to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies but to use 111 and GPs for non-urgent needs. It said some people may be asked to make their own way to hospital, though it urged people to seek advice from 111 or 999 before doing so.
With most life-threatening category 1 calls will be covered by ambulances, no blanket agreement has been reached on responding to category 2 calls – covering conditions such as stroke, heart attack and sepsis – with unions and trusts agreeing locally which will receive a response.
Rishi Sunak’s ministers have warned of a “postcode lottery” across the country, arguing that the planned anti-strike legislation will enforce national minimum service cover during strikes.
Asked if the level of strike cover on offer today would have been different if the legislation was in place, Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Yes, it would be different.”
Saying he hoped the bill could be passed within six months, the minister added: “It would make the contingency planning much easier to predict because we would know what the minimum safety service levels would be. Of course, it would protect the unions’ right to strike.”
It comes as health unions announced that they will refuse to submit evidence to the NHS pay review body for the next wage round.
The 14 unions – representing more than one million ambulance staff, nurses and other NHS workers in England – have called of Mr Sunak’s government to engage directly in pay talks.
Unions have accused the government of “hiding behind” the independent pay review body, and believe the lengthy process is not able to deliver a deal to prevent industrial action – including a walkout by ambulance workers on Wednesday.
Mr Barclay has not ruled out backdating any salary increase in next year’s NHS pay settlement to the start of 2023. He is also thought to be considering whether a one-off hardship payment.
But the health secretary said he does not “think it is right” to “retrospectively” go back to last April when it comes to reviewing this year’s pay offer to NHS staff.
“I don’t think it is right to go all the way back to April  and retrospectively look at April when we’re already under way in terms of this year’s pay review body,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Barclay added: “But of course the unions made representations about that, and what the prime minister said at the weekend is nothing is off the table.”
However, chancellor Jeremy Hunt has ruled out both a one-off payment and the idea of backdating the next wages agreement to the start of 2023, according to the Daily Mail.
Asked about the idea of a one-off payment or backdating next year’s pay rise, Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, told Times Radio: “There’s all different types of opportunities there – but the way you explore those opportunities and identify what’s going to work best in the situation is through constructive talks.”
Mr Barclay said he was due to speak to doctors’ unions on Wednesday to discuss possible strikes by junior doctors, but the British Medical Association (BMA) said he had cancelled the talks so he could give media interviews.
But the BMA tweeted: “We see that Steve Barclay has told BBC R4 Today programme he is meeting with doctors later today. Actually, he cancelled the 9am meeting we agreed so he could do media, and a further meeting is not yet agreed. Hopefully it will be soon.”
Meanwhile, Mr Barclay said he does not use private healthcare and is treated on the NHS. It comes after Mr Sunak refused to say whether he or his family uses a private GP.
“I don’t subscribe to a sort of GP private thing,” the health secretary told LBC. “I don’t subscribe to private provision.
He added: “But I don’t have a problem with people, with their own money, who wish to spend that money on private healthcare. I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing for people to want to do.”