'We need to keep going.'
Junior doctors on the picket line outside Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital display a continued sense of persistence in the BMA’s long-standing dispute with the Government.
This week’s industrial action will take the total number of strike days this year to 28, after a three-day walkout which began on Wednesday morning after a pause in action of more than two months as negotiations took place behind closed doors.
A further six days of strikes are planned in January if the Government does not produce an offer the BMA junior doctors committee feels is credible enough to take to its members.
While the committee co-chairs described a ‘much-improved tone’ from the Government in recent talks, they say they had to call strikes with no credible offer made by the mutually agreed deadline – now two weeks ago.
In Sheffield, doctors echoed the national message – they don’t want to be on strike and they don’t have to be.
'What we deserve'
Jess Zollman, a foundation year 2 in Sheffield, said: ‘Going on strike is always going to be difficult, and particularly at this time of year.
‘It’s hard to keep going, but we have to. A lot of doctors are feeling burnt out and we don’t feel like what’s been offered so far is enough. Doctors have felt let down [by government] but we know the negotiating committee is committed to pursuing what we are mandated to strike for – what we deserve.’
Dr Zollman said patient support remains on the doctors’ side: ‘When you walk the wards, the patients I’m speaking to see how hard everyone in the health service is working – and they often tell us to keep going and that we deserve better. We deserve fair pay, we deserve lunch breaks, we deserve the right to take sick leave when we need it without feeling pressured to come into work.’
As we speak, a driver leaving the hospital car park shouts ‘you deserve more money’ towards the picket line.
‘We are very grateful for that support,’ says Dr Zollman. ‘It gives us hope.’
The power to end the strikes, doctors insist, is in the hands of health secretary Victoria Atkins, who replaced Steve Barclay in the Government’s November reshuffle.
Atkins tweeted on Wednesday morning urging junior doctors to ‘call off the strikes’ and ‘come to the table’. But the BMA junior doctors committee says it will talk at any time, and that Atkins must drop the Government’s dogmatic insistence talks can’t continue while strikes are planned.
This stance, they say, has led to ‘so many missed opportunities in 2023 to settle the dispute’ – now estimated to have cost £2bn, about double what it would have cost to have given junior doctors full pay restoration they asked for when they balloted last year.
Charlotte Underwood, a specialty trainee 1 in emergency medicine, said doctors had felt ‘quite positive’ a deal might be struck in recent talks, after ‘everything went quiet’.
Having returned from an 18-month spell in New Zealand to be closer to her family, Dr Underwood said she has a renewed sense of the pressures in the NHS. But, like many doctors, feels aggrieved that the Government is trying to use the timing of the latest strikes against them.
‘The pressures are bad in winter, but they are bad all the time,’ she told The Doctor. ‘There should be safe-staffing levels all year.
‘It’s sad that it’s taken so much action to get this far, but here we are. We need to keep going.’
After the BMA called the latest round of strikes, Atkins had said it was premature because they had not received her ‘final offer’.
GP trainee Ben Eder said it was ‘disappointing’ but ‘not surprising’ that the Government had made an offer JDC did not consider credible by the pre-arranged deadline for the talks.
‘That’s why we are back out on strike,’ he said. ‘We have seen through this process. The Government has not negotiated in good faith, and not just with our committee but with other staff across the health service.
‘People are exhausted from the day-to-day struggles of working in the healthcare system. Staffing levels are unsafe already; we have huge numbers of vacancies and gaps in the rota on a daily basis.
‘It is in the Government’s hands to put forward a credible offer, which could end the strikes, but they have not done that yet.’
Dr Eder said Atkins’ admission her ‘final offer’ had not been tabled meant it was ‘so important’ for doctors to ‘continue to fight together, and not give up’.
He praised the camaraderie from other branches of practice such as consultants and staff, associate specialist and specialty doctors – whose negotiating committees have each taken pay offers to their members.
‘Solidarity is so important, and we’ve seen it,’ he said, noting how nurses and consultants made the effort to show support on their way into work on Wednesday morning.
Dr Zollman agrees on the importance of solidarity with other healthcare professionals. She said: ‘There’s been a narrative in parts of the media that suggests that us getting what we ask for means that others can’t. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We want all NHS workers to be paid fairly.’
Dr Eder reiterates a point made on many picket lines throughout the current dispute – that while the strikes are primarily about pay, they are representative of a wider point: how much we value our national health service. That, he says, ‘starts with valuing your staff’.
No desire to strike
BMA council chair Phil Banfield puts it similarly: ‘Every winter, doctors raise the alarm about the terrible effects of the NHS staffing crisis, only to be met with indifference by Whitehall. Doctors don’t want to strike; we would much rather be caring for patients than standing on picket lines.
‘But we have to be honest – a health service in which pay declines in real terms every year is not a sustainable – or healthy – health service. If the Government wants patients to get the care they need and reduce the huge waiting lists, it has to invest in the expertise required to deliver this.
‘The deadlines were known, and there is a deal to be done: now is the time to do it.’
(Photo credit: Ben Ireland)