Plenty has been written and said about the junior doctor contracts and the changes to the NHS (still not nearly enough, mind you) and the backlash from the doctors has been justifiable and rightly directed at the man behind all this – Jeremy Hunt. The Health Secretary has refused to debate the issues with actual junior doctors. He was even seen running – okay, slight hyperbole – briskly walking away from a doctor who attempted to confront Hunt; much like a child hiding from their mother after having broken her favourite vase. Only it is not a vase. It is the NHS.
Junior doctors working unsafe hours to provide more services at the weekends is simply going to spread the workforce even thinner than it currently is. There are no plans to increase the budget to allow for better coverage. Instead, doctors will work longer hours. And because more doctors will have to work weekends, there will be less personnel available during the week. Adding to that, the talk of doctors wanting to leave the NHS is not just talk any more. The number of doctors applying to work abroad in 2015 (when the contract talks began) was 8,627 – up from the average of 5000 in the previous 3 years. On the day that Jeremy Hunt imposed his new contract, 300 people applied for certificates to work abroad – up from an average of 26 a day. Every year in the UK, around 6200-6800 medical students get accepted into university. That means that in a single day, around 5% of an entire year’s worth of medical training have left to the sunny climate of Australia, New Zealand or any other place where they feel they will be treated better. Imagine what that number will be across a year. 15%? 20%? Could we get to a point where 1 in 5 doctors trained here in the UK decide to leave before ever contributing to our domestic healthcare system?
That last bit is only speculation and sounds preposterous, but that is only because this whole situation is. Jeremy Hunt’s terms before entering negotiation was that the British Medical Association (BMA) must accept 22 of the 23 recommendations that he set for the contract. He then has the audacity to tell the public in nearly every interview he does that the BMA have refused to get around the negotiating table. He claims junior doctors will be paid more, citing the 11% basic pay rise as evidence. He fails to mention that cuts to pay for unsociable hours means that, on the whole, junior doctors could be facing a pay cut of around 30%. Hunt’s spin is genuinely impressive in its complete and utter lack of honesty. But when it comes to spin – as with most things in life – what goes around comes around. The public has listened to their junior doctors and supported them. Jeremy Hunt’s reputation is in tatters, his motivations questioned and his name frequently mispronounced.
But is he really the only one to blame here? Yes, the irony of having a Health Secretary who is scared to talk to doctors would almost be funny if it was not so alarming. Yet the silence on the fronts of Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party is even more concerning. Barely a word has come out of Cameron’s mouth on one of the biggest political issues in the last 6 months. I don’t believe the tinfoil hat is required any more when discussing the Tories wanting to privatise the NHS. Hunt even co-authored a book in 2005 which proposed that the NHS should be denationalised and replaced with a health insurance system where patients would “purchase care from the provider of their choice”. By weakening the NHS and attempting to shift the blame onto the workers themselves, the inevitable suggestion of privatisation will be pushed as a way to fix the system they themselves broke. And a public that is dissatisfied by the care they have received from overworked and tired doctors are much more likely to buy the idea that a privatised system is better.
Hunt was not exactly loved before his surprising promotion to Health Secretary due to a controversial tenure as Culture Secretary. There were calls for his political career to end due to suggestions of bias in NewsCorp’s takeover of BSkyB, but what is more alarming in light of his current role is that when overseeing the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012, he tried to persuade director Danny Boyle to remove the sections that celebrated the creation of the NHS. Now it seems like his role is a sponge to soak up bad press and notoriety, before being tossed away or given some other, less important position. But he will have done his job of starting us on the route to privatised healthcare, helping Cameron and his party get away without so much as a speck of dirt. So the next time you talk about the junior doctor contract, don’t leave it at Hunt. Hold Cameron and the Tories accountable. Let’s not be duped by a political play that jeopardises patients’ lives for ideological reasons.