More than 10,000 doctors walked out for the second time in two months, further burdening an already overwhelmed NHS
On April 11, tens of thousands of junior doctors (similar to medical residents in the US) left their posts in British hospitals commencing a four-day walkout. The strike resulted in the cancellation of thousands of operations and appointments, as well as cancelling or delaying thousands of clinical laboratory tests and anatomic pathology readings associated with those healthcare visits and surgical procedures.
The walkout was spurred by pay concerns and working conditions and comes on the heels of a three-day strike last month. That strike had already weakened the UK’s frail National Health System (NHS), which has become inundated with appointment backlogs that predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and which has led to longer wait times to see a doctor, ABC News reported.
This latest strike was more perilous since the senior doctors who covered for their juniors during last month’s strike were previously on leave for a holiday weekend, United Press International (UPI) reported.
“These strikes are going to have a catastrophic impact on the capacity of the NHS to recover,” Matthew Taylor (above), Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, told Sky News. “The health service has to meet high levels of demand at the same time as making inroads into that huge backlog … That’s a tough thing to do at the best of times—it’s impossible to do when strikes are continuing.” (Photo copyright: Wikimedia Commons.)
Junior Docs Cite Injustice
Junior doctors who walked out are calling for a 35% pay raise to right the wrongs of 15 years of below-inflation raises, but the government continues to argue it cannot afford to increase pay, UPI noted.
“There is nothing ‘junior’ about the work I have done as a doctor. For an hour of work that I might save a life, I can be paid 19£ [$23.65],” said Jennifer Barclay, MD, a surgical junior doctor in the UK’s North West electoral zone, in a British Medical Association (BMA) press release.
“My dad, an electrician, tells me to quit and retrain in his footsteps. I’d be earning more, have less stress, less responsibility, better hours, and a better work-life balance after three years,” she added. “Surely, this life, this training, responsibility, debt, and crushing workload is worth more than 19£ per hour? I’ll be on the picket line this week because doctors believe that it is.”
According to the BMA, newly qualified junior doctors earn just over 14£ ($17.43) per hour, ABC News reported, which added, “The doctors’ union has asked for a 35% pay rise to bring junior doctor pay back to 2008 levels.”
However, their pay demands come in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. Inflation has risen above 10%. Paired with increases in heating costs and food prices mean that decreased wages leave many struggling to pay bills, ABC news reports.
A hard-hitting BMA advertising campaign designed to shine light on these disparities depicts three junior doctors (with one-, seven-, and 10-years’ experience) removing an appendix. The video shows that the total the three would be paid for the hour-long operation would be 66.55£ ($82.84):
- Doctor with one year experience: 14.09£ ($17.54).
- Doctor with two years’ experience: 24.46£ ($30.45).
- Doctor with three years’ experience: 28£ ($34.85).
And this for performing a potentially life-saving procedure, the BMA stated.
In the press release, BMA Junior Doctors Committee co-chairs Robert Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi said, “It is appalling that this government feels that paying three junior doctors as little as 66.55£ between them for work of this value is justified. This is highly skilled work requiring years of study and intensive training in a high-pressure environment where the job can be a matter of life or death.”
Patient Care is Affected
Lower salaries also affect patient care levels and have led to recruitment issues, with many doctors leaving the profession, the BBC reported. “This is not a situation where we are fixed in our position. We’re looking for negotiations and Steve Barclay (UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) isn’t even willing to talk to us. He hasn’t put any offer at all on the table … there has to be two sides in the discussion,” Emma Runswick, MD, a junior doctor and deputy chairwoman of the BMA, told the BBC.
But while the junior doctors battle for wages, the government’s initial focus has been on patient wellbeing. “There will be risks to patient safety, risks to patient dignity, as we are not able to provide the kind of care we want to,” NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor told UPI prior to the walkout.
The timing of the walkout also caused consternation with the NHS. “Not only will walkouts risk patient safety, but they have been timed to maximize disruption after the Easter break,” Health Secretary Barclay told UPI as the walkout was announced.
Barclay also claimed the amount sought by doctors was “unreasonable” and would cause raises above $25,000 per year, UPI reported. “If the BMA is willing to move significantly from this position and cancel strikes, we can resume confidential talks and find a way forward as we have done with other unions,” he stated.
It is important to note that doctors would be pulled from picket lines if immediate danger were present due to trade union laws that say life-and-limb coverage must be provided, the BMA told the BBC.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor