Who decides the future of the NHS? An increasingly militant doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), or the democratically elected representative of the people, Jeremy Hunt?
Though many would caricature Mr Hunt as a tyrant, bent on destroying the NHS and depriving the public of quality healthcare, this could not be further from the truth. Instead, his aim is to uphold the principles of our health service by improving the conditions of both doctors and patients. This article will argue that it is the BMA, and not the Health Secretary, putting patients at risk by the needless and reckless use of strike action.
In order to better understand this situation, we must first look at what the NHS stands for. It was founded to provide medical care, free at the point of use, for all citizens of our nation, funded out of general taxation. These values are not at all at stake in this debate, as the BMA might have us believe. The Conservative government, along with all of the major political parties in this country, have consistently made clear their commitment to uphold and support the founding principles of our publicly run health system. In fact, in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to increase funding for the NHS by £8 billion, and press ahead with reforms to forge a truly seven day NHS. Yes, delivering on these commitments will be hard, but the price of failing to reform is unthinkable. Continuing to accept higher levels of mortality at weekends is simply not acceptable, and it is in keeping with the values of our precious health service that we try and reform it.
The core of the ongoing dispute over Junior Doctors contracts lies not in the specifics of the contract – both sides have agreed that the current arrangement, drawn up in the 1990s, is outdated and no longer in the best interests of patients. After a round of strikes earlier in the year, several changes were made to the contract offer to doctors, and these were approved by the Union’s Junior Doctors committee. Subsequently in a new ballot of the doctors, only 40% of eligible BMA members voted to strike. While the Union may not have got absolutely everything it asked for, the government made substantial concessions, and for the BMA to continue with the planned walkout would simply be a political exercise, not a practical or principled one.
Grossly irresponsible, unwilling to take any of the blame, hating government proposals purely out of habit rather than with reason… No I’m not talking about Jeremy Corbyn, this time it’s the BMA. Since trade unions were legalised in 1871 they have served a key purpose in protecting the workers they are supposed to represent, and many trade unions still do this admirably. The BMA however is not one of them. As of April 2016, Mr Hunt has had 75 meetings with the BMA and has made 73 concessions. Despite his clear willingness to compromise the BMA has still persisted in calling strike after strike, hurting only those who need protecting the most – the patients. If the BMA really cared about protecting the NHS or even its members then it should want to be in the room with the man who wants to negotiate, not standing outside organising the next picket line. In a civilised nation striking must be the last resort, not the first response.
Sadly, in all this turbulence caused by the BMA the real story of Jeremy’s proposals has been cruelly distorted. For perhaps the first time since the turn of this century there is a distinct attempt to fix not just the surface problems of the NHS, such as waiting times, but also the underlying problems facing it too. Tired doctors are one of the greatest threats to patient welfare, and the new contracts reduce the maximum number of hours that a doctor can be expected to work from 91 down to 72 hours per week, as well as the number of consecutive nights that a doctor can work down from seven to four. Have I even mentioned yet that there will be a 13.5% increase in basic salary? I don’t think it takes a brain surgeon to work out who really has the best interests of the NHS in their hearts.
In May 2015, this government was given a resounding mandate to make a seven day NHS a reality. But even more importantly than this they have a responsibility to the NHS and the public at large to stop accepting a second rate deal for our health service. It’s time we start improving our health service allowing it to once again claim the title of being ‘best in the world’. Let’s give the NHS its identity back, it is first and foremost not a place of employment but a place for helping and healing the sick. We have a Health Secretary in Jeremy Hunt who respects this identity. He truly is a Man of the People.