Demonstrators attend a protest rally in support of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) and proper pay for it's staff and workers, in central London on March 11, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: Thousands of protesters marched through London to the British prime minister’s residence on Saturday to support health care workers who have held a series of strikes over pay and conditions in the state-funded National Health Service.

Almost 40,000 junior doctors, who form the backbone of hospital care, are due to walk out across England for three days starting Monday.

NHS England said the doctors’ strike would be even more disruptive than recent walkouts by nurses and ambulance staff.

The NHS said it would “prioritize resources to protect emergency and critical care, maternity care and where possible prioritize patients who have waited the longest for elective care and cancer surgery,” but thousands of appointments and procedures will be canceled during the 72-hour strike.

A wave of strikes has disrupted Britons’ lives for months, as workers demand pay raises to keep pace with double-digit inflation. As well as health care workers, teachers, train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving examiners, bus drivers and postal workers have all walked off their jobs to demand higher pay.

Unions say wages, especially in the public sector, have fallen in real terms over the past decade, and a cost-of-living crisis fueled by sharply rising food and energy prices has left many struggling to pay their bills.

Britain’s annual inflation rate was 10.1% in January, down from a November peak of 11.1% but still a 40-year high. The Conservative government argues that giving public sector staff pay increases of 10% or more would drive inflation even higher.

There have been recent signs of progress toward ending the disputes. Nurses, midwives, physiotherapists and ambulance staff last week called off planned strikes to hold pay negotiations with the government.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he would hold talks with junior doctors’ representatives if they agreed to call off their walkout.

“Let’s have a constructive dialogue to make the NHS a better place to work and ensure we deliver the care patients need,” he said on Twitter.

But the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association. said there had not been “any credible negotiations” and the strike would start as planned on Monday.