Junior doctors are to strike for a total of 20 days between September and Christmas (2016) over an ongoing contracts dispute, the British Medical Association (BMA) has announced. Prime Minister Theresa May has accused the BMA of "playing politics" but Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith has called on the "worst ever" health secretary Jeremy Hunt to resign.

The first strikes will take place on 12-16 September between 8am and 5pm. Further strikes will take place, all between 8am-5pm, on 5,6,7,10 and 11 October; 14-18 November and 5-9 December. It has been estimated that each day of action will mean 6,000 operations will be cancelled - approximately 120,000 operations in total.

The General Medical Council (GMC) said the strikes were "unprecedented" and could endanger patients. Chief executive Niall Dickson said: "The decision of the British Medical Association's leadership to call on doctors in training in England to take rolling, all-out industrial action is unprecedented and represents a serious escalation of this dispute."

However the BMA said the junior doctors it represents had been left with no choice and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the government. In a statement the BMA said: "Despite our efforts to work with the Secretary of State to resolve this dispute, the Government has failed to listen, leaving us with no option but to take more industrial action."

BMA junior doctor leader Dr Ellen McCourt said the strikes would not go ahead if the government did not impose the contract.

"Junior doctors still have serious concerns with the contract, particularly that it will fuel the current workforce crisis, and that it fails to treat all doctors fairly," she said, according to the BBC.

But in a statement, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges said that the proposed strikes were not proportionate.

"Five days of strike action, particularly at such short notice, will cause real problems for patients, the service and the profession," it said.

An embattled Hunt compared himself to NHS founder Nye Bevan, a claim ridiculed by Labour, reported the Daily Mirror). He did have support from prime minister Theresa May, who reappointed him despite his unpopularity among doctors. May said: "The Government is putting patients first, the BMA should be putting patients first - not playing politics."

However Labour's Owen Smith said Hunt must be removed immediately. "This situation has been brought about by a combination of chronic underfunding, a botched reorganisation and the worst Health Secretary in the NHS's history," said Smith. "It is simply astounding that on the day Theresa May walked into Number 10 one of the first decisions she made was to keep Jeremy Hunt in post."

Jeremy Hunt
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt leaves Downing Street in London Jack Taylor/ Getty Images