By Dara O Cogaidhin Junior doctors across England launched a fresh wave of strike action on 6-7 April in their long-running dispute with Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. This 48-hour strike was the fourth walkout since industrial action began.
The first strike, called by the British Medical Association (BMA) in January, came as Hunt threatened to introduce a new employment contract for England’s 55,000 junior doctors that would widen pay inequality in the profession and remove safeguards from being overworked. A government impact assessment also admitted the new contract would disproportionately affect women doctors who take time off for maternity leave.
Morale among junior doctors is at a record low. Only 52 per cent of doctors finishing their second year of work after graduating chose to stay in the NHS last year, down from 71 per cent in 2011. As many as half of Accident & Emergency posts are unfilled. Tired and overworked doctors do not make for good, high quality care; but instead of supporting these professionals, the government is intent on imposing contracts that put their health and wellbeing and the safety of their patients at risk.
The struggle by junior doctors is widely supported, and seen as a stand against a government wilfully undermining the NHS. The Tories are strategically attacking pay, terms and conditions in an attempt to demoralise doctors and prepare the way for privatisation.
Despite Hunt’s crocodile tears about cancelled operations and a smear campaign to vilify junior doctors as “greedy”, new polling by YouGov found that 59 per cent of the public back partial strike action, compared to 23 per cent opposed. The strikes command widespread support because people are furious that Tory cuts to NHS funding have created a massive crisis in hospitals across the country.
The first full walkout in the history of the NHS is planned for 26 April, when junior doctors will escalate their action by withdrawing all labour and providing no emergency cover. They are right to do so – far greater is the risk to patients if Hunt is allowed to cut, dismantle and privatise NHS services on the broken back of the BMA. If anyone suffers during the strike, it is his and his government’s fault.
But the wider union movement needs to support the doctors. If the Tories successfully enforce this contract in August, they are likely to announce pay cuts for nurses, healthcare assistants and other clinical staff. NHS workers in Unison, Unite and the RCN should demand their leaders ballot for action in solidarity with junior doctors and against cuts in NHS funding. The Labour Party should come out unequivocally in support of the strikes.
The junior doctors have shown a steely determination to win. The strikes at the end of the month could build up the momentum. But a series of coordinated, escalating strikes involving all health workers and professionals could smash the Tories’ plan to wreck the NHS.