Why are junior doctors striking?

Junior doctors are currently undertaking a three-day strike in the UK. Junior doctors consist of all doctors who are not yet consultants, from those who have just qualified to senior medics. They represent around 40-45% of the medical workforce. The strike is organised by the BMA (British Medical Association) and the HCSA (Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association), which represent the collective interests of doctors.

The government has contingency plans for dealing with this, including drafting in consultants to perform work usually carried out by their junior colleagues. However, the NHS admits that disruption will be inevitable and services extremely busy, while insisting that their patients should continue to seek medical help if in need of care.

All doctors, as part of the Hippocratic Oath, swear to ‘do no harm’, and doctors’ strikes are a rare occurrence. So, why are the junior doctors choosing to undertake industrial action at this time?

BMA representatives claim that, since payment for junior doctors has not risen for many years, the junior doctors are now paid 26% less than they were in real terms in 2008. That is because the value of the Great British Pound has fallen as a result of inflation. This means that the same amount of money can purchase a smaller amount of goods. If pay doesn’t rise to take account of this, then workers – such as junior doctors – will be less wealthy in terms of spending power than they were before inflation occurred.

The BMA says that some doctors are paid only £14 per hour. This is less than twice the minimum wage for adults in the UK. It takes about six years of training to become a practising physician. Furthermore, junior doctors often drop out of the profession early in their careers. This has been linked to high levels of stress and burnout consequent to working on the NHS’s ‘frontline’, particularly during the covid pandemic.

The BMA also points out that, if junior doctors are not paid enough here in this country, then they will likely head abroad to seek employment overseas. Doctors could be tempted to travel to other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada in search of higher pay and better working conditions. If this happens, the NHS may not be able to employ as many skilled medics as it requires to meet the needs of its patients.

The HCSA has blamed the government, and in particular the health secretary, Steve Barclay, for the strikes. They say that ministers have consistently refused to increase the pay of junior doctors, and that the Health Secretary has been unwilling to engage with unions in discussions in the lead-up to the strikes. Despite the high levels of inflation, pay increases for doctors have remained capped at 2%.

The BMA says that it is seeking an uplift of 35% in pay for junior doctors to account for the 26% loss in the value of payments since 2008. The government so far has sought to limit pay increase for doctors to a single bonus payment. The BMA claims that the government may also wish for the unions themselves to recommend accepting this offer to their members.

The strike will end on Thursday morning, but it remains to be seen whether the government and the two unions will be able to come to an accommodation that will ameliorate the concerns of junior doctors and prevent both further strikes and a haemorrhage of healthcare workers from the NHS.

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