Why They Strike

Rupert Beale

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?


  • 13 January 2016 at 9:05am
    cufflink says:
    Yesterday we were greeted at the doorway to Barnet Hospital by a delightful and determined group of young Doctors on stike and of course we signed their petition with much heartfelt support. These fine young professionals are our future in health and were I Minister in charge (I cannot bear to name him) I would accede to all their well reasoned resistance to my proposed new changes in work schedules. It should never be the case that such an eminently qualified and well reasoned section of our valued community should be put in such a position. Where does the basis of trust lie in the thinking of the present government that it should alienate such vocational dedication as in our young Doctors? And the recounting of the wicked machinations of the government's PR is just appalling to hear.
    The young Doctors are now a beacon of decency and a very sensible cause and justification for a new approach to public administration. Yes we need seven day attendance and service in hospitals etc, but let it be arranged amicably.

  • 15 January 2016 at 1:52am
    JordonNewell says:
    Forgive the analogy, but the situation has echoes of the months leading to the Iraq war: the full force of the Government spin machine is turned on junior doctors, and dodgy statistics are amplified by a compliant commentator class lacking either insight or curiosity. Sadly, as then, the Government may well "win", but it will be a terrible sort of victory. The army of junior doctors will melt away to other shores and professions, and then who will care for those who need them most?

  • 20 January 2016 at 5:53pm
    mrkorky says:
    I've had the immense privilege and fun to teach part-time at a British medical school for the last nearly 10 years. Much effort is spent from the first year on to teach, stress and underline the importance of professionalism in medical school and afterwards. It is very successful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that junior doctors are finding it hard to negotiate with the present health minister and his department. They are faced by completely unprofessional behaviour - imposition of a new contract (or its threat), inaccurate, untrue press releases and very negative press briefings about junior doctors and their motives. These young man and women deserve our support in this horribly difficult situation, one which I know is giving them more pain and heartache than they need or deserve.