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Thousands of junior doctors and consultants in England walked off the job on Wednesday in a big escalation of a campaign for higher pay that is set to fuel tensions with Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government.
For the first time in the 75 year history of the NHS, junior and senior medics took joint industrial action, leaving patients across the country with only a “Christmas Day” emergency service.
Standing outside London’s University College Hospital, with passing cars honking in support and colleagues chanting and waving banners, Tom Dolphin, a member of the BMA’s consultants committee, said: “The reason that we’re taking joint action today is because we need to show the government that . . . we can’t be divided and they are not going to be able to set one group against the other.”
Doctors were striking with a heavy heart, he suggested. “We’d much rather be doing what we’re trained to do, which is looking after patients.” However, a reduction in pay of more than a third since 2008 and worsening conditions were sapping the workforce, he said.
“We’ve got 8,000 empty consultant posts across the country and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide the care that patients need,” he said.
About 885,000 appointments and procedures have been cancelled since industrial action began in England last December and ministers have publicly blamed the stoppages for the length of NHS waiting lists, which stand at a record 7.7mn. But Dolphin pointed out that 7mn people had been waiting for treatment before the strike started.
“And we know that’s down largely to the lack of resources and lack of staff in the NHS. It’s only going to get worse if we don’t fix the problem,” he said.
In July Sunak accepted the recommendation of the independent doctors’ pay review body for a 6 per cent increase, with an additional payment consolidated into base pay for the juniors. Both he and Steve Barclay, health secretary, have insisted that the award is final.
On Tuesday Barclay said the “co-ordinated and calculated strike action” would “create further disruption and misery for patients and NHS colleagues”.
He added that doctors who started their hospital training this year were receiving a 10.3 per cent pay increase, with the average junior doctor getting 8.8 per cent and consultants receiving, alongside their pay increase, “generous” reforms to their pensions.
Dolphin said there was “potential for the dispute to end but it requires the government to actually recognise the legitimacy of what we’re asking for which at the moment they seem to be struggling with”.
Opinion polls suggest the public supports the strikers. But Robert Huxtable, who was leaving the hospital after an appointment, expressed frustration with both sides. Gesturing to the strikers, he said: “They should be looking after patients first . . . I don’t believe this is right.” He called for the two sides to sit down and negotiate.
Vicky Timms, an emergency medicine consultant at Northwick Park Hospital, had her eye on the next generation as she held her three-year-old daughter Hien, who enthusiastically waved a blue BMA flag. Lamenting the pressures of the job, she said she believed her cohort of medics would be the first that did not wish their children to follow in their footsteps. “We feel so undervalued and under-appreciated,” she said.
“Everybody here is absolutely devastated that we have to be on a picket line. No one wants to leave patients,” she said.