Severe disruption to NHS services is expected over the coming days as junior doctors prepare to strike amidst a storm of winter pressures.

The strikes, which get under way at 7am on Wednesday 3 January, are the longest in history and follow a very busy few weeks for St George’s, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals and Health Group.

They take place over six days, and some appointments and procedures will be rescheduled. People will also be waiting longer in emergency departments when their illness or injury is not life-threatening.

During December, nearly 26,000 people visited one of the Group’s three emergency departments – an average of 835 people every day. A typical day would see about 800 attendances, but during this time there was also a rise in very poorly older and vulnerable people being admitted to hospital with illnesses such as flu and norovirus.

As is usually the case, there were fewer attendances on Christmas Day itself – but other days during the festive period remained busy, and more than 800 people visited one of the emergency departments on Boxing Day.

Dr Richard Jennings, Group Chief Medical Officer for St George’s, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals and Health Group, said: “We saw a challenging end to 2023, and we’ve seen a challenging start to 2024. That won’t let up any time soon as we face yet another round of strikes, which will have a significant impact on our patients.

“We’ve seen a lot of very poorly people come to hospital over the past month, and you can help us to care for them by using NHS 111 online when your healthcare need is less urgent.”

NHS 111 online is a 24/7 service and can direct people where to go for care. Pharmacists, meanwhile, can provide advice on minor health concerns from skin rashes to earaches and flu. Many local pharmacies stay open late, and no appointment is needed.

But people should still attend their appointments unless contacted and told otherwise. When life-threatening, people should always ring 999 or go to an emergency department.

Dr Jennings added: “It’s really important that you continue to come forward for care when it is an emergency, and you should keep any appointment that you have, unless you have been told that it has been rescheduled.

“But I’d also ask you to remember that coming to one of our emergency departments when it’s less urgent doesn’t mean you will be seen more quickly. In fact, you will be waiting significantly longer than usual, and may even be redirected to a more appropriate service for your healthcare need.”

People can take steps to stay safe and well this winter, including getting vaccinated for flu and Covid through their local NHS vaccination service and washing hands regularly with soap and water to stop the spread of illnesses.

With many people more vulnerable to colder weather – including those aged 65 and over, babies and young children, and those with long-term conditions – take the time to look in on vulnerable family, friends, and neighbours.