Viewpoint: Government must not ignore historic junior doctor protests

It was extraordinary - historic - to have so many doctors and medical students demonstrating against an imposed contract but also demonstrating that they believed in the NHS and did not want it destroyed before their eyes.

Monday night’s demonstration was large (3,000 to 5,000 people), exuberant and sent a message to government that its treatment of doctors in training would not be tolerated. The message from my generation – a participant in the last junior doctor strike in the 1970s – must be to support our colleagues because their fight is for the government to respect all doctors and NHS staff in providing safe healthcare of high quality.

The ‘juniors’ were protesting about excessive workloads, frustration at not being able to deliver quality care and in defence of the patients they care for and care about. The NHS itself was in danger of being downgraded and their future along with it.

GP workload

We have all been ‘juniors’, some of us senior ‘juniors’, and know the stress of working long hours in difficult circumstances. We probably accept that our care has sometimes not been of the best as we have juggled priorities, difficult clinical and social problems and battled with tiredness to stay focused.

The BMA junior doctors committee (JDC) walked out of contract negotiations because their concerns and ideas were not being heard. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has ordered the imposition of a new contract by August 2016. NHS Employers' national roadshows - set up to ‘listen’ - were suddenly cancelled after the JDC decided to ballot for industrial action.

At last a group of NHS staff has said: 'stop' and will not allow themselves to be bullied. Junior doctors' realisation that they have to shout loudly to protect the NHS and their patients contrasts sharply with the  attitude of government politicians, who say: 'The NHS gets a real-terms increase in its budget; we want the NHS to be the best in the world; staff must push up quality, and we need a seven-day NHS' (as if the NHS closes down at weekends).

NHS efficiency savings

At the same time we have to find efficiency savings of £22bn (that’s 20% of the current NHS budget) and the government will put in an extra £8bn by the end of this parliament in 2020.

If changes to the junior doctor contract are imposed, like increasing basic hours from 60 to 90 hours a week, doctors will have taken a massive step back to days when we worked 80 to 120 hours a week. It would also have a huge impact on patient care. If these doctors are defeated then contracts for all NHS professional staff will be changed unilaterally as well.

The government ignores the unacceptable stress and workload in general practice, the reduction in general practice funding, the number of hospitals deemed inadequate by the CQC and the 10% vacancy rate for NHS trust chief executives.

Colleagues in general practice and general training have blown the whistle on the downward progression of all of our abilities to deliver safe, effective and high quality services to our patients. We should support them.

I pledge the support of Doctors in Unite and am adjusting the programme of our conference, Doctors and Medical Students – our role in saving the NHS, which is open to non-members, so that we can offer practical help and make sure the leaders have enough visible support to make any new contract fair for doctors and patients.

  • Dr Ron Singer is a retired GP and chair of Doctors in Unite (Medical Practitioners Union)

Photo: JH Lancy

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