Dr Jeeves Wijesuriya, elected to lead the JDC last week, told GPonline that last year’s industrial action was ‘necessary’ and the ‘incredible’ campaign by junior doctors had put the defence of the health service centre-stage.
The FT2 GP trainee, a prominent spokesperson for the BMA during the contract dispute and on wider NHS issues, said he is proud to take over as chair at what he admitted is a ‘difficult time’. The committee had ‘a huge amount of work to do’ in the wake of the ‘huge conflict’ of the past couple of years, he said.
Despite the imposition by the government of a contract junior doctors warned was unsafe and unfair, the JDC says it has won concessions and continued to protect members forced to work under the new conditions. Implementation of the imposed deal began in October 2016 and the transfer of doctors onto the new terms will continue until October 2017.
Junior doctor contract
Talks are ongoing with NHS Employers to fix problems with the contract’s foundation 'cash floor' - a pay protection mechanism - while better deals have been agreed for juniors on maternity leave and for academic doctors. A recent agreement on GP trainee work scheduling guidance will, said Dr Wijesuriya - who also sits on the GP trainees committee - help encourage more doctors to train in general practice and produce better GPs.
But junior doctors ‘remain opposed to the imposition’, he said. ‘We are united in efforts to protect the rights of those forced to work under it, and that the rights of those junior doctors are ones we can robustly defend, and ensure that the obligations of the contract to protect them are being met.’
Outside the new contract the JDC is also fighting to improve junior doctors’ working lives, the new chair said. ‘There’s so many things we need to do to improve the lives of our juniors, so much we need to do around quality of training, provision of training, and actually these are real priorities for us.’
Throughout the campaign against the contract junior doctors said they were fighting for the future of the NHS more widely and won support from the public and other NHS workers partly because doctors’ warnings about the future of the service resonated. Now, Dr Wijesuriya said, we are already seeing those predictions materialise. ‘We are starting to see the impact of the rota gaps we have been talking about’.
‘We have talked about the impact these changes would have on recruitment and retention in medicine. We are seeing 50% of foundation doctors not going into speciality training. We are seeing the waiting times that are the worst on record, which junior doctors predicted because of the lack of funding and the lack of support.’
The chair, who has already served as co-chair and deputy chair of the JDC over recent months and sits on the BMA council, acknowledged ‘frustration and anger’ felt by junior doctors was 'inevitable' following the imposition and JDC’s subsequent decision to end its mandate for strike action. That feeling is shared by JDC members, he said, but warned against dwelling on the past.
‘Rather than looking backwards,' said Dr Wijesuriya, 'we need to start to rebuild. We can't have the luxury of allowing ourselves to feel despondent. We have to push forward with the membership in a way that is going to produce positive results.’
That will mean rebuilding the BMA’s structures and representative bodies and ensuring local reps are in place as well as repairing relationships with NHS organisations which were damaged by the dispute, he said.
Junior doctor strikes
Despite his focus on moving forward and rebuilding after the damaging battle with the government, Dr Wijesuriya said he doesn’t regret decisions taken then by the leadership he was part of. The strike while ‘unfortunate’ was ‘necessary at the time’. And the wider campaign by juniors was ‘something incredible’ that forced the issues into public consciousness and inspired the wider medical profession.
‘How did junior doctors react when presented with things which we felt would damage our health service and compromise the care of our patients? We stood together passionately and articulately talking to the public, to government, to anyone that would listen about the problems we faced,' he said.
‘We have seen new leaders emerge, people demonstrate how passionate they are about the health service. It has really inspired our workforce in this campaign for our health service and the campaign for our patients.’
On the prospect of fresh industrial action, raised by at least one prominent JDC member, which would require a new ballot, Dr Wijesuriya said it is ‘very hard to speculate on the future’ and whether strikes will again become necessary.
‘We are in a process of starting to rebuild all the relevant structures that we have, rebuild that faith in the BMA as a whole, representing people. I think we have a responsibility to protect people and fight for them moving forward. So for me any question of what those steps could be will depend on the membership and what people want. But right now we are very much focused on the future and rebuilding. And that is what I was elected to do.’