Earlier this year, thousands of junior doctors across the country took to the picket lines outside their hospitals after the news that the government was to impose a contract upon them which was deemed unsafe to patients and doctors alike. There were six days of industrial action between January and April, after which the government and the elected committee of the British Medical Association (BMA) re-entered talks and a new version of the contract was drawn up.
So why have we still not reached a resolution? This new version of the contract was put to members of the BMA – both junior doctors and senior medical students – and 58% voted against it. The fears of threats to patient safety, issues over weekend pay and inequality had not been adequately resolved so the BMA called for formal re-negotiations. These calls were rejected and so the BMA announced a fresh set of strikes. While next week’s five consecutive days of strikes from 12th -16th Sept have been cancelled, future strikes are still currently planned on a monthly basis until the end of the year.
A five day strike is an enormous step for any doctor to take. Deliberately withdrawing your care from patients is something a doctor never wants to do. So why strike? Jeremy Hunt described the decision to strike as ‘devastating’, and as Dr Lauren Gavaghan brilliantly put in her interview on Sky News – doctors are also devastated.
Things should never have got to the point where doctors are having to leave patients behind on the ward in order to draw attention to what is going on. The government are set upon imposing a contract which will leave wards even more understaffed than they already are, leave doctors working longer hours for less pay and leave patients at the mercy of the system as it crumbles beneath them. The government will not re-enter negotiations and withdraw the threat of imposition. Doctors are being pushed and pushed – withdrawing non-urgent care for 24 hours was not enough to make the government listen, withdrawing non-urgent care for 48 hours was not enough, withdrawing all care for 48 hours was not enough… so this decision was not taken lightly but seems to be the only way to make the public and the government realise the severity of the situation.
Industrial action is being taken in the hope that although in the short term patients will be inconvenienced, in the long term future patients will still be able to use a free National Health Service and will be safe doing so. It really is that serious – the future of the NHS lies in these next few months. If the government succeed in imposing their unsafe contract on junior doctors, the floodgates will open and other groups of healthcare staff will be targeted one by one.
Jeremy Hunt’s manifesto was for a ‘7-day NHS’. In theory, this would be a marvellous thing. To be able to offer the same services to patients, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, would make us world leaders in healthcare. But a theory is all it ever was. There was never a plan, or an evidence base, or an injection of funding. The simple fact is the current chronically understaffed 5 day non-urgent service cannot be stretched over to 7 days without an increase in both funds and staffing levels, neither of which are being offered up. And urgent care? That already happens at the weekends. If you attend an Emergency Department anywhere across the country at any time, day or night, weekday or weekend, you will be looked after.
Yes, the NHS is crumbling under the weight of an elderly and expanding population. Yes, it needs a re-haul. But, who is best placed to speak for patients and design that re-haul? A politician desperately trying to tick boxes and fulfil his election manifesto before he hands over his post? Or the doctors, nurses and hospital staff who work in the NHS? The duty of a doctor is towards his or her patients and this is why they must strike.
So please, over the coming weeks and months, support your junior doctors. Join the crowds of doctors striking and talk to medical students in your year. We are hugely lucky to have a free National Health Service in this country, and we must do whatever we can to protect it.