The junior doctors’ strikes: are they warranted?

Ellen Layzell discusses the controversial junior doctor strikes.

Edited by Isabel Aruna

On Tuesday the 12th of January, thousands of NHS junior doctors took to the streets to strike against proposed pay cuts. The junior doctors themselves consist of any qualified doctor who is not yet a GP or a consultant, and their wages range from £23,000 to over £70,000. ‘Junior’ doctors of the highest paygrade may have been working for 10 years and would make life and death decisions at work.

These strikes are in response to a proposed contract which according to the leader of the British Medical Association (BMA), Dr Mark Porter, junior doctors have “no faith in.” There is an 11% increase in basic pay on offer but a scrapping of automatic pay rises, and a 25% cut in overtime payments (which include weekends and compulsory anti-social hours). This is the part that according to the BMA, the junior doctors are most opposed to. Dr Porter states, “Most junior doctors feel that [the scrapping of overtime pay] is reducing the recognition they get for the services they have provided for decades” and thus limits on how long they work simply aren’t strong enough. They feel the cuts may lead to a drop in the quality of patient care because there is less protection against overwork and the doctors will be liable to make mistakes.

Student support for the strikes have been strong; across the UK students have rallied in expressing support for the junior doctors’. For instance, universities such as Sheffield held a range of activities in support of the junior doctors’ strike. On the 12th of January it was reported Nottingham Students’ Union President, Community Officer and President of Medicine Society was joined with over a hundred students from various schools on the steps of the Portland building, University Park; this solidarity gathering was in support of the junior doctors’ strike and protesting against the proposed cuts in nursing bursaries.

I agree with the BMA’s decision to strike and believe the intentions of the doctors are far from selfish. During the strikes, routine and non-emergency care was hit, with some operations being postponed. Critics of the junior doctors’ action suggest their striking goes against the Hippocratic Oath they have taken. However, while there is a history of doctors striking for personal gain (in 1947 and 1974), the doctors’ state they will be better able to care for people without the signing of this contract that they are opposing. Moreover around 50% of junior doctors did work on the day of and the night before the strike, and their Hippocratic Oath shouldn’t compromise their right to proper, structured working conditions.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt stated that this dispute is “unnecessary.” The government argues that just 1% of junior doctors will be worse off under the new contract while ¾ will be better off, and the contract is a necessary part of their vision of a 7-day NHS. I think Mr Hunt has shown little respect for the people who spend their careers helping people and perhaps his reaction regarding these strikes and these junior doctors are a representation of hoe he feels about the NHS as a whole.

Hunt has been strongly criticised in the past for implying junior doctors are lazy; according to Bake-Off finalist and junior doctor Tamal Ray, morale of the workers in the NHS is too low to have a government consistently against it. Ray argues that the removal of pay progression for doctors on parental leave may even introduce a gender pay gap, and suggests these strikes are about solidarity – 98% of those balloted by the BMA voted in favour of industrial action. Though, Ray does admit the current system in which “personal sacrifices” are necessary to “keep the NHS afloat” does need changing.

Unless something is agreed between the BMA and the government, the junior doctors will strike again, this time for 48 hours, starting at 8am on Tuesday the 26th of January. The doctors’ strikes are reasonable; there should not be a system where doctors can be overworked – for their health and for the health of the country. We should stand with the junior doctors; with a myriad of cuts elsewhere, we arguably need a strong NHS more than ever and we must also appreciate the years of training junior doctors go through should pay off. Striking is the last resort for a group of people whose efforts must not go unnoticed and unrewarded.