‘The public are with us, they feel the effects of the workforce crisis in the NHS.’
Sumi Manirajan, deputy co-chair of the BMA junior doctors committee, addressed the question of momentum on the first morning of the second round of junior doctor strikes in England on 11 April.
Dr Manirajan said the main thing doctors were asking ahead of this week was ‘what do the public think?’ It’s a sentiment she argued showed their compassion and proves their priorities lay with their patients.
So she was heartened to read the results of an Ipsos poll, released on Tuesday morning, that showed growing support for strike action by junior doctors.
The headline finding from the poll of 1,092 adults taken between 31 March 31 and 1 April – after the first round of strikes took place – was that 54 per cent supported strikes by junior doctors, a three-point increase against last month. Only 24 per cent opposed junior doctors’ strikes.
March to Trafalgar Square
That sense of momentum came across on the picket line at University College Hospital in London, where chants of ‘Save our NHS’ and ‘Claps don’t pay the bills’ rung out to the many TV cameras, domestic and international, outside the hospital.
Energetic activists led increasingly confident choruses of chants and spoke with assertion on the issues that have led the BMA to this point as thousands were expected to descend on Trafalgar Square for a rally later that day.
Hamish Bain, an IMT3 at the UCH picket line, told The Doctor: ‘I think the message that we’re taking this action because hospitals are already dangerous on non-strike days is getting through. People can see it’s unsafe and unsustainable. They understand you need to pay a workforce fairly to retain them.'
Despite some reports to the contrary, junior doctors say they are receiving largely positive support from consultants.
Dr Bain said: ‘They are the ones having to cover us, and we are very grateful for that.’
He acknowledged ‘some frustration’ from consultants, adding: ‘It’s fair enough to criticise as long as it’s reasonable and it’s a two-way debate.’
But he believed: ‘The positivity is coming through a lot more. Or the frustration is directed at the Government rather than us. Some consultants have been more supportive because they realise the extent of what we do more than before.’
Dr Bain made a placard based on analysis of public sector worker pay against average pay since 2011 by the Financial Times. The analysis shows medical practitioners among the hardest hit by austerity policies. ‘It's indisputable,' he said. 'It highlights what our salaries look like against inflation.’
Dr Manirajan made the economic argument by using the Government’s own statistics. She pointed out the forecasts from chancellor (and former health secretary) Jeremy Hunt’s spring ‘back to work’ Budget, which noted the economy could face a £73bn hit if the 7.2 million waiting list is not addressed.
‘Taking that figure, the £1bn it would cost to restore junior doctor pay in England seems liken a pretty worthwhile policy,’ she said. ‘If we don’t keep our doctors in the NHS, the waiting lists are only going to go up.’
Stressed and depressed
Doctors picketing this week reiterated how many colleagues are leaving the NHS because of the poor pay and conditions.
‘Rotas are almost always short,’ said Dr Bain. ‘Doctors are off work because they’re stressed, or depressed, and that comes from covering their colleagues who are suffering too. It’s a vicious cycle of burn out.’
Dr Bain also noted the growing numbers of colleagues working as locums because the pay is so much better than it is for those on regular contracts. He believes this would reverse itself if pay for permanent doctors is improved.
‘The availability of these shifts is increasing. The money is coming from the same NHS budget, it just needs to be redistributed and used for the right things. My pay is about £24 per hour. The pay for the same shift as a locum can be £70 to 80 per hour. If they’re willing to pay that for locums then the money is there to increase pay.
‘We just want the difference between pay for locum shifts and private, and regular work in the NHS, to be reduced, so more people will stay in the NHS. We don’t want to go and work elsewhere.’
Joe Simpson, a core trainee 1 at UCH, added: ‘What we’re asking for is much less than they pay for locum shifts. The situation we have now is so wrong.
'The underlying issue is the NHS is chronically underfunded. If the Government isn't willing to fund it properly, it will collapse – which is what we're seeing.
‘Pay is a big part of that. If you don’t pay doctors fairly, they will leave the NHS.’
Dr Manirajan noted that, for all the support from the public, and other doctors, a gnawing sense of frustration remains: ‘That’s because [health secretary Steve] Barclay won’t get round the negotiating table.’