Why I decided to strike, by a Croydon junior doctor


By - Tuesday 12th January, 2016

In December 2015, junior doctors called off a national strike at the last minute to continue talks with the government. Today, the strike is back on. A Croydon medic explains why he’s joining the picket line


Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

On Saturday 28th November, a group of junior doctors ran an information stand in North End, central Croydon. I was among them. We spent the day talking to the public, explaining the reason why we feel compelled to go on strike, asking for their support and understanding.

This strike action is not something that any doctor takes lightly. But the issues are so serious that we believe that our actions are justified. Of doctors balloted by the British Medical Association, 98% backed the strike and the overwhelming majority of junior doctors (all doctors except consultants and GPs) intended to take action. At the last minute, an offer of further negotiations led to a postponement.

We have taken to social media to try to combat misinformation in the media as well as taking to the streets. We want to give people the real facts surrounding junior doctor contract negotiations and what it means for the NHS.

Croydon’s junior doctors want local people to understand why we have to strike. It is our last resort. This strike isn’t just about pay, it is about patient safety – and more than that, it is about protecting our NHS in the future. Privatisation is a real risk and we need to save our NHS and save our local hospitals. There is no doubt that strike action will cause disruption, but if we can help people to understand why it’s happening, we hope that we can get their support.

On Wednesday 10th February there will be a full walk-out of juniors

Today, Tuesday 12th January, the strike has gone ahead after the talks led nowhere. Junior doctors will provide emergency cover only in our hospitals – the same cover that you receive on a bank holiday, for example, and this will be repeated on Tuesday 26th and Wednesday 27th January. On Wednesday 10th February there will be a full walkout of juniors. The Croydon Health Service NHS Trust has been doing everything that it can to plan for this, to minimise disruption and to ensure that all emergency and life-critical care continues unaffected at Croydon University Hospital.

Additionally, all urgent operations or clinics such as those related to cancer diagnosis and treatment will continue as planned. To do this, managers are bringing together their consultants and clinical staff from other areas of the hospital and the trust’s community services. However, they will have to postpone some non-urgent planned care, including routine operations and outpatient clinics. We were really hoping that it wouldn’t come to this, but it is the last resort against a health secretary who won’t drop the threat of imposing an unfair and unsafe contract on junior doctors.

If you require any urgent medical attention, please don’t be put off going into hospital. There will be doctors offering emergency care.

When we strike, it’s because something terribly wrong is happening

The new contracts we are being asked to sign aren’t just a problem for us. Jeremy Hunt wants to impose a contract which is unfair and unsafe. We believe that they endanger our patients and threaten the NHS. The new contract will reduce the vital safeguards that ensure that doctors aren’t overtired, overworked, and ultimately, likely to make mistakes.

The contract reclassifies ‘social working hours’ to include Monday to Saturday. Despite Jeremy Hunt’s apparent offer of an 11% pay rise for doctor’s basic pay, this reclassification could actually equate to an overall paycut of 30%. With a basic starting salary of £23,000, such a cut, alongside the lack of safeguards, could push our doctors away from England to countries that not only remunerate fairly but also support their doctors with safe working hours. Polls have shown that up to 70% of doctors could leave the NHS if contracts were imposed. Such a degradation of the NHS workforce would create the opportunity that it appears the Conservatives are waiting for, to fully privatise the NHS.

The contract also targets doctors who work less than full time as they take up academic work, such as research into cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. These doctors will be financially punished by losing out on their pay progressions. Similarly, this punishment for part time work will affect women, as they are more likely to be working less than full time when bringing up children.

As doctors, we have spent at least five years in university education and rigorous training to treat those who are sick. For us, it is a vocation and we’ll do almost anything to help our patients. We do hours of unpaid overtime to finish off the paperwork, to spend time with a lonely patient, or to bread bad news to a family. More often than not we are choosing other people’s families over our own and we do it because we care. So when we have to make the decision to strike, it’s because something terribly wrong is happening, not just to us, but to our patients.

What’s frustrating is the barrage of misinformation spread by the health secretary

Since 2012, the BMA and the government have been discussing junior doctor contracts with little progress. Now Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt wants to impose a contract that is unfair and unsafe.

What’s been so frustrating for healthcare workers throughout this whole contract issue is the barrage of misinformation and spin that continues to be spread by the health secretary, the Department of Health and much of the mainstream media. The insinuation that junior doctors don’t work weekends is insulting. Junior doctors and consultants are in hospital seven days a week. Jeremy Hunt’s implication otherwise is dangerous and may have already resulted in permanent disability for patients who waited until Monday to attend A&E.

Photo by Lizzie Bolton, used with permission.

Morale amongst doctors is at an all-time low.

The health secretary has suggested that the BMA is unwilling to negotiate. In fact Hunt was willing to discuss just one out of the twenty-three points on the new contract; the others were non-negotiable. After the Department of Health finally agreed to talks mediated by ACAS in December, Hunt continued to spread misinformation, stating that there was only one point which was not agreed at these talks – in fact the disagreements remain numerous and the government seems to either not understand or simply not care about the real issues affecting our health service.

Morale amongst doctors in the NHS is at an all time low. We barely have time for a loo stop, and a lunch break consists of a bar of chocolate at 4pm as we walk from one ward to another. We come home from work hours late feeling exhausted, emotionally drained, barely able to take part in everyday family life. But we do it for our love of the NHS and our patients.

The health secretary has completely undermined all that we do. He has demoralised the backbone of the NHS workforce, but he’s also unwittingly brought us all together, uniting us as one group with one goal – to save our NHS. None of us wants to strike, but this is our last resort and unless the health secretary drops the threat of imposition, we’ll stand together to fight for a contract that is fair to doctors and safe for patients. This is a fight for the NHS, your NHS, and I hope you’ll stand with us.

Unmesh Bandy

Unmesh Bandy

Unmesh Bandy is a junior doctor who has lived in Croydon for the past 20 years. He studied medicine at Imperial College London. His interests include health, rock music and food.

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  • Robert Ward

    I have not tunnelled into the detail of this dispute but what I do see here is some lack of clarity and conflation of issues.

    First of all, the BMA is a Trade Union. It exists to get a better deal for its members. That’s fair enough, but similar to other Trades Unions, it seeks to make a public face that it is not about pay and conditions, but the safety of the public. In my experience this is usually mostly a smokescreen.

    A second issue is around ‘privatisation’ of the NHS. Most GPs and all Consultants are independent contractors. This was how the agreement of doctors was bought at the setting up of the NHS. I continue to be amazed by how ‘Consultants’ can be a dirty word in much Union and other rhetoric but somehow this is overlooked with doctors. The NHS was privatised at birth.

    Thirdly there is the “it’s already a 24 hour, 7 day a week NHS” argument. This seems to go unchallenged. Nobody is “insinuating that no doctors work at weekends”. (This is the old trick of attributing something to the other side of the argument that is a view that they do not hold). Of course there are some people working at all times of the day and night in the NHS but there is good evidence that it is better to get sick on
    some days of the week rather than others. That cannot be in the interest of
    patients.

    Pay progression is a public sector invention. Having worked in most of my career in the private sector I was surprised that irrespective of performance or the economy, pay increases automatically and that there are then increases on top of that. It is now even more surprising that part time workers may get that same automatic increase.

    Lastly there is the claim of a demoralised workforce. A claim made at every public sector dispute. When was the last time that it was claimed that morale amongst doctors, nurse, teachers, etc was high? This is rolled out every time.

    • Anne Giles

      And one of the doctors has actually written some reasons as to why he is not going on strike. So they don’t all agree. I went to my private GP in London today, in sheer desperation, because I have had a problem since the beginning of November, which has not been resolved either at my doctor’s surgery, where one usually sees a junior GP unless one is willing to wait 3 weeks. The junior GP got the diagnosis wrong. I then spent 6 hours at Croydon University Hospital having tests and the staff there got the diagnosis all wrong. I went back to a senior GP who also got the diagnosis all wrong. Today the doctor in London hit the nail on the head!

      • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

        I went to an NHS dentist who turned private then told me I needed three fillings. As I was going abroad I went to the NHS dentist to get them seen to quicker and she said it was bollocks. I didn’t need any fillings. Three years later my teeth are fine. No fillings. Different health professionals can genuinely come to equally ill informed opinions… Out of the best of intentions… Or not.

        • Anne Giles

          Very true. Our dentist is a personal friend, so trustworthy. Years’ ago a private dentist persuaded me to have some teeth whitening done. We went to Peru on holiday and it all came off. A Peruvian dentist repeated the procedure and it all came off. Got back to the U.K. and my dentist threatened to see the other one in court if he did not return the £500 I had paid him. Cheque arrived quickly!

    • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

      It’s just laughable to have someone with a PHD on £23,000 when entry level jobs in the private sector that require only a BSC or MSC are generally about £25000->27000. How does that work?

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    What happens if you just refuse so sign the contracts? My employer has tried varying my contract in the past and I’ve simply refused to sign. They weren’t happy about this of course but generally they got over it. They can’t change your terms of employment without your permission unless they’re prepared to press the nuclear button and actually sack you… Which generally they’re not.