STRIKE action carried out by junior doctors this week against government plans to impose a new seven-day contract “is not just about saving face. It is about justice, and the safety of the public,” the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, has said.
The Bishop was speaking on Tuesday after the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, rejected any last-minute compromise with the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), over the contract.
If imposed, the normal working hours of junior doctors — anyone who is in training and not yet a consultant — will be stretched to 10 p.m. on weekdays, to include Saturdays. Currently, hours worked after 7 p.m. and at weekends are regarded as “antisocial”, and pay is increased per hour.
Under the reforms, some salaries could be cut by up to 30 per cent, the BMA says, and would affect, in particular, specialities such as accident and emergency, surgery, and acute medicine, which, doctors say, are already understaffed (News, 6 November).
Thousands of doctors marched on Whitehall in protest on Tuesday and Wednesday, supported by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and hundreds more gathered outside hospitals across the country, carrying placards, which read, “Not Safe Not Fair” and “Who do you trust — 50,000 doctors or Hunt?”
“Any idea that strike action is a random and political act misunderstands the strength of feeling among junior doctors,” Bishop Hill said. “There is little doubt that the contract needs to be redrawn.”
More than 78 per cent of the 45,000 junior doctors in the UK took part in the walkout between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. over two days, including those in emergency care, after three years of talks with Mr Hunt over his plans to introduce a “truly seven-day NHS” collapsed.
Health services, including maternity, accident and emergency, and intensive care, were staffed almost entirely by senior consultants to ensure that patient care was as safe as usual. Patients were advised to avoid A&E, although waiting times remained the same.
“The fact that we are now in this awful stand-off is very disappointing,” Bishop Hill said. “I am sure that [senior consultants] will do all they can to maintain basic cover, as I am sure that junior doctors are clear in their resolution that, were there a major critical incident, they would return immediately.”
He went on: “However, the public are being exposed to a level of risk that should be avoidable. Should there be loss of life as a result of this action, the consequences are terrible. I hope and pray that both parties will return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.”
Mr Hunt also plans to scrap the financial penalties for hospitals that contract doctors to work more than 48 hours per week. Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, he said: “No trade union has the right to veto a manifesto voted for by the British people.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has also expressed his disappointment that the Government has not done more to prevent industrial action. He told Premier Radio this week that the dispute “shouldn’t have come to this”, and that he was not optimistic about a resolution any time soon.