Junior doctors picketing in Manchester on Monday (Picture: Sue Caldwell)

Junior doctors struck in massive numbers across England on Monday—and they plan to be out for a further two days. From early morning onwards, picket lines swelled with medics and their many supporters.

The doctors’ BMA union is demanding their wages be restored to what they would now be if they’d kept pace with inflation. For most, that would mean a 26 percent rise.

Mike Andrews is a junior doctor at the Royal London hospital in east London. He told Socialist Worker that junior doctors are striking because of a staffing crisis caused by low pay. “We are competing for doctors, there are 10,000 vacancies, and it’s affecting our ability to do our job,” he said.

“Some junior doctors are being paid £14 an hour. In London, it’s not possible to live on that. How are you meant to live on that when you have kids? I’ve never seen people so angry or so disillusioned.

And Mike was scathing about the Tories. “Health secretary Steve Barclay keeps on saying we won’t negotiate,” he said. “But it’s him that didn’t bother to show up to two meetings. And, at the meeting he did show up to, he came with no mandate and kept on saying we should call off the strikes. It shows a complete lack of respect.”

A few miles down the road at the Homerton hospital, the mood was excited and angry. Dozens of pickets there were joined by nurses and midwives that came off their wards to show support.

BMA rep Andrew Meyerson explained how he came to Britain from the US—and why he is striking against NHS privatisation. “I know family and friends who have struggled to pay their health insurance bills in the US,” he said. Some have even gone bankrupt because of them.

“The Tories have been in power for 13 years and are steadily destroying the system. It has become so difficult to provide the care we want. Tory ministers actively push for privatisation to sell off the NHS and make money for their rich friends.

“We have a government that doesn’t care about patients or staff. They have no plan for how to fix waiting lists, and they have no plan for how to retain staff. That’s why we can’t just write strongly worded letters or sign petitions anymore. We have to strike.”

That the BMA began its campaign with a 72-hour continuous strike shows it is serious about beating the government—and rank and file doctors are clearly ready for a hard fight. 

But some of the politics that have weakened recent strikes by nurses and ambulance workers are also present. That’s especially true on the question of whether workers in the health service are a “special case” that the government should treat differently to others.

The BMA put out a graphic comparing junior doctors’ and Pret A Manger baristas’ pay, after the coffee chain’s bosses said they’d pay up to £14.10 an hour.  It’s right to fight low pay, but the problem isn’t how much underpaid Pret workers make. 

Some union officials are using the idea that the NHS is a “special case” to say doctors should not strike alongside others—even others in the health service. And that strikers should not be “too political”.

But many striking doctors disagree. On the picket line in Aintree, Liverpool, Anastasia said that unions should present a “united front”. “Pay is symptomatic of a bigger problem,” she told Socialist Worker.

“We want fairer pay for the public sector, and all other workers struggling with the cost of living crisis. I think it’s really important to show solidarity with teachers and nurses.”

Anastasia said that striking together could have a “really big impact”. “It would tell the public that things aren’t working at the minute—and that we need systemic change,” she said.

Paramedic Esme on the picket line at Whipps Cross hospital in east London agrees. She brought a colleague to show solidarity with the strike and hold up a banner that read, “Ambulance workers support doctors.”

“The medics were really pleased we’d come down on our day off,” she said. “All of us agreed that the Tories have caused the crisis in the NHS—and have no plan to deal with it beyond privatisation. We really need all health workers to come out together because that would show our power.”

The junior doctors’ strike is already having a huge effect with thousands of appointments and operations cancelled. Hospital bosses are using specialist consultant doctors to try and cover the junior doctors’ work. But this is not sustainable—and everybody knows it.

The key now is to ramp up the pressure on the Tories. If other health unions were to pull out of the government’s fake pay negotiations and return to the picket lines, it would cause a political crisis. It would be far wider than the NHS alone—and could end this rotten government.

Thanks to Sophie Squire, Martin Lynch and Laila Hassan for picket line reports

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