Junior doctors strike again

by Daphne Liddle

THOUSANDS of junior doctors took to their picket lines for the third time this year at around 8am on Wednesday in the long-running fight against Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s efforts to impose on them a new contract that is unfair and unsafe.

More than 5,000 non-urgent operations have been postponed along with many thousands of clinic appointments.

But the junior doctors who work in accident and emergency units have turned up to work as normal because they do not want their industrial action to endanger lives.They continue to point out that the new contract will indeed danger lives by making doctors work excessively long hours to cover normal work-day patterns at weekends and evenings — but without any extra pay for the unsocial hours.

The junior doctors have been offered a modest pay rise but it will not match the money they will lose from ending enhanced pay for unsocial hours.

The junior doctors are very much concerned that although, on paper, they will not be supposed to work excessive hours under the new contract, there is no new funding and no extra staffing for the extra hours that will have to be worked. And the checks and safeguards against excessive working will be scrapped — the Government’s war on “red tape” again.

Hard pressed NHS trusts will be unable to deliver the new services the Government demands without pressuring their junior doctors to work excessive hours and there will be no one to keep records on what hours are worked.

“As a doctor, I pledged to ‘do no harm’ — so I must strike against unsafe care,” said one of the strikers, Dr Harriet Nerva. “The Government plans to staff a seven-day service with a five-day workforce already stretched to breaking point. Patients will suffer.”

Hunt’s attempt to end the impasse by imposing the contract has been met with defiance by the British Medical Association (BMA), which is attempting to challenge the decision through judicial review. The union, which represents 38,000 junior doctors, 98 per cent of whom voted to strike in a November ballot, has said that its members have no confidence in the new contract.

Public support for the doctors remains high. A poll of 860 adults by Ipsos MORI for the BBC showed 65 per cent supported doctors going on strike — almost the same proportion as backed them ahead of the walkout last month. Some 17 per cent said they were against the strike, a drop from 22 per cent on last time. The poll did show an increase in the proportion of people blaming both sides for the dispute;that now stands at 28 per cent, up from 18 per cent. But the majority — 57 per cent — still blame the Government.

And the doctors have plenty of support from other unions. Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, who is national officer for health for the giant union Unite, said: “Jeremy Hunt has made evasiveness into an art form with his twisting- and-turning. He has failed to negotiate in good faith to resolve the junior doctors’ dispute.

“He has always been keen to blame everyone else except himself for the pressures on the 1.3 million NHS workforce in England and the accompanying financial crisis facing the health service.”

Johann Malawana, who chairs the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, said: “We deeply regret disruption to patients, but the Government has left junior doctors with no choice. Ministers have made it clear they intend to impose a contract that is unfair on junior doctors and could undermine the delivery of patient care in the long term.

“The current proposals will affect those already working the most unsocial hours, hitting key parts of the NHS with the greatest problems in attracting and keeping doctors — such as our accident and emergency departments.

“This action is wholly avoidable but the Government must get back around the table and negotiate with junior doctors, rather than simply impose a contract in which they have no confidence.”

Further scheduled dates for industrial action include 8am on Wednesday 6th April to 8am on Friday 8th April, and 8am Tuesday 26 April to 8am on Thursday 28 April.

The BMA is also preparing to launch a judicial review into the Government’s decision to impose a new contract on junior doctors. The judicial review is being sought because of the apparent failure of health secretary Jeremy Hunt to undertake an equality impact assessment prior to its decision to force new terms and conditions on junior doctors in August.