Why They Strike
It’s wrong to jeopardise patient care, even if it means working very long hours for mediocre pay. That’s why junior doctors will often turn up to work if they are themselves ill, and why they haven't gone on strike for forty years. The leader of the BMA Junior Doctors described today as ‘the saddest day in our profession’s recent history’. It’s difficult to disagree. This is not because emergency care was compromised. The service provided by junior doctors today was on a par with that of a bank holiday (the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was more disruptive to the NHS). Around 3500 patients had elective procedures cancelled, though, and this dispute isn’t their fault.
Since the previous strikes set for December were temporarily averted, there has been a small amount of progress on agreeing a new contract. As predicted, it was nowhere near enough. Instead of a sincere attempt at constructive negotiation, the government has done its best to smear junior doctors. Pictures plucked from social media appeared to show medics on ‘exotic foreign holidays’ (helping out at a hospital in Nepal) and ‘swilling champagne’ (is there a lazier cliché?). There has also been an attempt to portray the BMA as militant left-wingers – but they aren’t affiliated to any party, and tend towards the centre.
Today the line of attack seems to have been that 39 per cent of junior doctors were at work, so that means they don’t really support strike action. In fact, around 30 per cent of juniors would have been rostered to work if it had been a bank holiday, and they reported for duty. Many academic junior doctors are employed by universities rather than the NHS, and don’t have the same right to strike in this case. That leaves a tiny proportion of non-striking junior medical staff. Support remains as high as was suggested by a 98 per cent vote to strike on a 76 per cent turnout.
The problems with being a junior doctor in the NHS go way beyond the contract, and it’s not going to be possible for the BMA and the Department of Health to solve them with megaphone diplomacy in a few weeks. The sensible course of action would be to postpone the negotiations until a wide-reaching but rapidly-reporting inquiry can be made into what the underlying problems are. The junior doctors are more than holding their own against a malicious government spin machine. What if their efforts were instead being directed to make the NHS better?