Doctors strike opens new front in fight to save NHS

By Bernie McAdam Labour movement solidarity can stop Hunt imposing unsafe contract

AS the Tories continue their slashing of NHS funding, junior doctors have quite rightly responded with a massively popular strike. Tens of thousands struck for 24 hours on 12 January, with picket-lines all over the country drawing large numbers of doctors and other trade unionists.

Junior doctors had voted 98 per cent in favour of strike action. The British Medical Association (BMA) had already suspended a pre-Christmas strike in the false hope of the government’s withdrawing a deeply unpopular new contract. And three more strike days have been called, with the last on 10 February involving a total withdrawal of labour, with no emergency cover.

There is quite clearly massive anger from doctors. But there is also massive support from the public. A new Ipsos MORI poll says that 66 per cent of people support the strikes. Strange then that Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander could not endorse strike action, even while expressing sympathy for the doctors. Better by far were those Labour MPs, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who expressed their support directly on the picket-lines.

Labour quite rightly puts the blame for this dispute at the door of the Tories. But an unequivocal stance of backing the doctors’ strike action would have demonstrated to all their seriousness about defending the NHS. A decision not to support a strike is an implicit criticism.

Not safe, not fair!

The BMA criticises the government’s new contract for its failure “address junior doctors leaders' concerns about contractual safeguards on safe working, and proper recognition for those working unsocial hours”. These are no idle concerns. NHS Trusts already overwork doctors. A contract with unreasonable and continuous long day or night shifts poses a significant risk to patient safety.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s attempt to rip up mandatory safeguards for doctors, safeguards that have been accumulated over many years, is an assault on patient care. And Hunt’s offer of an 11 per cent pay rise is in fact equivalent to a wage cut once cuts in overtime pay, loss of incremental increases and weekend work not being recognised as unsocial hours are taken into account.

And this attack is part and parcel of the Tories’ attempt to dismantle our health service. Slogans on the picket lines bore this out clearly: “Save our NHS, Save our Contracts” and “Protect our Doctors, Protect our NHS”.

As talks rumble on at the conciliation service ACAS, it is imperative that the BMA does not climb down. The stakes in this dispute are too high. A victory for the government would embolden its attempts to ram through unsocial hours and pay cuts on all health workers. And all health workers’ unions should mobilise real solidarity action in support of the doctors.

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