Next Monday, 12th September, will see the beginning of a new round of strikes by junior doctors against Tory attacks on their terms and conditions, and in defence of the NHS. These will be the first in a series of monthly five-day strikes. Dr Tomasz Pierscionek, a junior doctor in London, reports on the battle ahead for those fighting to #SaveOurNHS.
On 31st August 2016, the BMA Council voted to endorse a programme of further industrial action, proposed by the Junior Doctors Committee (JDC), just weeks before the first group of junior doctors are to be faced with the new contract. Junior doctors will withdraw their labour for five days, from 12-16th September, between the hours of 8am and 5am. Further strike action is planned for October, November and December. Consultants and others medics not classified as junior doctors will be staffing the NHS, as was the case during strike action taken earlier this year, in order to ensure our patients are not left without medical assistance.
UPDATE: Latest news is that the strike scheduled for 12-16th September has been cancelled, but planned action for the following months is still set to go ahead. The issues raised by striking doctors have not been resolved, and the questions over the future of the NHS remain. Follow Socialist Appeal for more news and analysis of the junior doctors strike and the fight to defend the NHS as it unfolds.
The media spin is once again in overdrive and on cue to portray junior doctors as reckless anarchists who are striking to the detriment of patients in order to score political points. But taking strike action is not something I, or my colleagues, do willingly or without significant forethought. You do not need a medical degree to figure out that individuals who make immense sacrifices (of time, comfort, and social and family lives – to the extent that their own physical and mental health sometimes suffers) in order to care for the sick would not choose to put patients at risk and lose a week’s pay whilst doing so. Junior doctors, like many other workers, are only a pay cheque or two away from being unable to pay their mortgages or rent or put food on the table. From my perspective, I am not just a doctor working in the NHS; I also use the NHS, as do my partner and family.
Set up to fail
As anyone who has visited a hospital during the weekend will tell you, a seven day NHS already exists, albeit one staffed by overworked and overstretched staff. Hunt’s claim, based upon carefully chosen statistics, that an additional 6,000 annual deaths occur during the weekend has been soundly debunked. Furthermore, a report leaked by the DoH (Department of Health) earlier this year indicated that there was no evidence that increased staffing levels on weekends would actually reduce mortality amongst patients admitted during those days, removing a keystone from Hunt’s argument that extra staff are needed during those days. The report also showed that if hospitals are to function on weekends, as they do Monday to Friday, an additional 11,000 staff (including doctors and nurses) would be required, on top of an annual cost of £900 million.
Further evidence indicating junior doctors are already overstretched is provided by the ‘Mind the Rota Gap’ study which showed that in London, as across the rest of England, there is a massive shortage of junior doctors. This often results in extra work being piled upon existing medics or gaps in rotas not being filled. Further depleting existing junior doctor numbers Monday to Friday, in order to spread us out across the whole week, will not only put patients at risk during the first five days of the week but will also not reduce weekend mortality.
We all want to give our existing and potential patients, which include ourselves, our colleagues and our families, the very best possible care. But we desperately need the additional staff and funding to do so. Otherwise the NHS is being set up to fail, in order to usher in a system of private healthcare – perhaps even a US-style healthcare system, complete with the shortcomings for those unable to afford what is surely a human right. I wish Jeremy Hunt, on behalf of the Conservative government, would support rather than damage a strained NHS and return to negotiations to create a contract that allows patients to receive the best possible care within a well-funded system.
The last resort
Our opponents have recently started saying that we are striking to reject a contract our own union endorsed. This is a classic example of right-wing media spin. In reality, the new contract was endorsed by Johann Malawana, former JDC chair and a single individual, who subsequently honourably announced his resignation once BMA members voted to reject the offer. This single individual is not the union, and the JDC itself never issued any formal statement endorsing the contract or suggesting how its 45,000 members should vote. Abiding by the wishes of the majority, the JDC started formulating plans for further industrial action when, in early July, it was announced that 58% of voting BMA members had rejected the contract.
Industrial action will undoubtedly disrupt services and cause inconvenience; it would be a futile course of action if it did not. But the alternative is that of a situation where further strain is placed upon the NHS; where its staff, without the concurrent funding required, are further demoralised; where more health professionals leave the NHS, leading to its collapse; and where, subsequently, the door is opened to privatisation. This alternative would be far worse. The only option, therefore, is to continue the fight against the Tories and their programme of austerity.
I am upset that we are pushed into taking strike action. However, I am also acutely aware of the long-term consequences of not taking action and realise that once the NHS is pushed to fail and disappears, the effects will be long-lasting and far more damaging to all of us than a few days of inconvenience. Cutting into flesh to remove diseased tissues may seem macabre, but the risk of leaving the situation to fester puts the entire body at risk.
Unite and fight
Over the past several months, the BMA has received huge support from the public and across the trade union movement – we are acting in the interests of the public and could not undertake such a course of action without their support. For this we are immensely grateful. A recent ITV poll showed that, at the time of writing, 85% of 53,000 voted Yes to the question ‘Do you support the latest strike by junior doctors?’
It probably comes as no surprise that around seventy MPs, including Cameron and Hunt, are believed to have links with private healthcare companies. This begs the question: how many Conservative Party MPs and their rich backers use the NHS? Such individuals are of course wealthy enough to afford private healthcare. One can see that, at best, they would be indifferent to the collapse of a public health service, and at worst might actively profit from the expansion of private healthcare.
In the final analysis, however, the attacks on the NHS are due neither to “ideological cuts” nor to the personal interests and lifestyles of Tory cabinet ministers, but are the result of the crisis of capitalism, which demands austerity and cuts. As a major component of public spending, the government is being forced to attack the NHS and its junior doctors in order to sustain the only sickly patient that they care about: the capitalist system.
The whole labour movement must unite behind the junior doctors and call for a 24-hour general strike in defence of the NHS and against the Tory government’s attacks on public services. With Corbyn on course for victory in the current leadership election, it is vital that Labour also unite and offer their full backing to the junior doctors and all workers taking strike action against Tory cuts. Corbyn has made the protection of the NHS a central plank of his platform in the latest leadership contest, promising to bring all previously-outsourced healthcare services back under public control. This demand is 100% correct, and must be fought for militantly, as part of a bold socialist alternative to Tory attacks and austerity.
- Support the junior doctors! Defend the NHS!
- Say no to profit and private providers – for a fully-public healthcare system
- Labour movement must mobilise against Tory cuts and for a socialist alternative!