Doctors are taking industrial action because they are not paid what they deserve. And every time they strike, they lose out on pay for that shift. For doctors who face mandatory professional costs, and often have to make costly repayments on eye-watering student loans and fund their own specialty training exams, this adds to their existing financial burdens.
The theory is short-term pain for long-term gain. But with the Government having imposed another real-terms pay cut this year and saying that is final, the dispute appears at something of a stalemate.
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, with some doctors facing outgoings such as childcare fees and rising rent or mortgage repayments, continuing to strike for your future could be hampered without a safety net.
In March, the BMA launched its first ever strike fund. It has now supported more than 3,000 people. The vast majority of recipients have been junior doctors, but dozens of consultants under financial pressure have also been supported.
Without the strike fund it would make me think whether or not I can afford to strikeDr Bolton
By helping doctors meet obligatory payments, such as their rent or utility bills, the strike fund has taken the pressure away from many who may have otherwise had to consider crossing picket lines despite agreeing with the reasons for industrial action.
GP registrar Iain Bolton moved to less than full-time hours before the industrial action ballot.
‘I felt like I was getting quite close to burnout,’ he says of switching to 60 per cent of a 46-hour full-time week (including on-calls).
Dr Bolton backs industrial action but, already on a reduced wage, says he would struggle to cover essential bills with strike deductions. He has spent the money he has received, which is less than the value of his deductions, on essentials such as his weekly shop.
‘Without the strike fund it would make me think whether or not I can afford to strike,’ he says. ‘It will definitely be helping quite a lot of doctors.’
Newcastle-based specialty registrar 1 Dr Bolton has mandatory GMC fees and medical indemnity costs to pay, as well as student-loan repayments and car-parking fees at his workplace. He also has his AKT (Applied Knowledge Test), which costs £470 and is essential to career progression, on the horizon.
The strike fund is evidence ‘the BMA is looking out for you’, adds Dr Bolton. ‘It’s looking after its members’ interests in quite a robust way.’
He says: ‘The strike fund will definitely have contributed to more people striking, and more people being able to get involved in picketing, showing support and doing what they need to do to look after themselves.’
Sherie George, a foundation year 2 in West Yorkshire, recently became married which depleted her and her husband’s savings. They also send money to support family members in Singapore.
The word solidarity is not just a word. It’s a common understanding that we will back each other upDr Runswick
Dr George says she would have had to work on strike days had the fund not been available. And she believes support is more important now than at the start of action, as financial pressures grow.
‘More people are feeling the hit,’ adds Dr George. ‘People who are scheduled to work all of the strike days in one month are facing huge deductions.
‘It’s very difficult. At first I was very nervous [about going on strike] as an IMG (international medical graduate) but I’ve had a lot of encouragement from colleagues and advice from the BMA.
‘It’s made me more confident to strike. For IMGs particularly, it gives you reassurance.’
While payments have been made to doctors who need financial support to keep striking, the fund – as it stands – relies on generous contributions.
Many of these have come from senior doctors and consultants, and from junior doctors based overseas who support the pay restoration cause. There have also been large contributions from organisations such as the Hospital Medical Staffs Defence Trust.
Tom Dolphin, a consultant anaesthetist and BMA council member, has made regular donations to the strike fund, including voluntarily donating his honoraria payments from BMA meetings as well as the pay he has received, after tax, for night shifts he has taken on to cover junior doctors while they are on strike. For a 12-and-a-half-hour shift, that equates to about £1,880.
He says: ‘It’s important to remember this isn’t an act of charity. Donating to the strike fund strengthens the action we are taking, helps more doctors participate and makes it more likely that we will win overall.
‘I don’t expect everybody who has covered night shifts to give their income to the strike fund, because it’s hard work and money well earned, but I want to set an example. If everyone donated the income from just the first hour of their strike cover shift, that would be a huge boost to the strike fund.
‘The Government thinks it can wait us out and pick off the least well-off doctors who have less discretionary income to draw on to weather that deduction they face on strike days. The strike fund is a way of preventing the Government from undermining our action.
‘We want to be able to make the strike fund as strong as possible so the union is as strong as possible and we can win as much as we can for our members.’
Emma Runswick, deputy chair of BMA council, has – for the second year in a row – arranged for the amount she is entitled to from her honorarium for union duties that is above what she would have been paid as a full-time junior doctor to go to the strike fund. This is approximately £22,000.
She says: ‘As we take more strike action, more people find it difficult financially. So having a strike fund is important. If we all take part, we can win together. If we help each other maintain our action, the action will help us all.’
Recalling the 2016 junior doctor strikes, when there was no strike fund, Dr Runswick says some members began to feel under financial strain when the strikes progressed. ‘It’s vital to be telling members that we know this is hard, and we are going to help,’ she tells The Doctor. ‘By sharing among ourselves, people feel backed up and feel able to take action now and in the future.
‘The word solidarity is not just a word. It’s a common understanding that we will back each other up when we need it.’
Dr Runswick reiterated that the BMA is pushing for a resolution to the dispute with the Government but accepts industrial action could still continue for many months.
‘Whether this dispute runs for two weeks further, or months and years further, we are trying to put ourselves in a position where members will continue to be able to take the action required,’ she says.
Going forward, the BMA hopes to raise funds for the strike fund through regular contributions taken from member subscriptions. Proposals are being worked on.
The money banked would be able to support doctors in the future, be it a major national dispute such as the continuing pay restoration campaign or localised issues.
One-off donations to the strike fund can be made via its dedicated website.