Underpaid, overworked, struggling against a collapsing NHS: a junior doctor tell Tribune about the crises on the wards – and why their strike matters for the future of the country.

Junior doctor’s pay has fallen by up to 30% since 2008. (Credit: Getty)

Today marks the final day of our second round of industrial action. Junior doctors up and down the country downed tools as part of a 4-day walkout in what is thought will be the most impactful strike action the NHS has seen.

This has come as a result of the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, walking out of recent talks with the British Medical Association (BMA), misinterpreting—either by choice or ineptitude—our opening position of restoring our pay as a ‘precondition’ to further discussion. This was just the second time Mr Barclay found the time to meet us—the same number of times he has held talks with night club representatives from the Ministry of Sound, which, despite its title, is not in the government’s remit. 

The BMA’s recent meeting with Steve Barclay was little improvement on the initial meeting, where the Secretary of State claimed he didn’t have the mandate to discuss pay, needing permission from his superiors. 

Despite giving the Health Secretary several chances to meet with us again and offering to call off the strikes if he could commit to a reasonable offer which we could put back to our members, Mr Barclay, unfortunately, left us with no alternative. 

Junior doctors have faced some of the harshest pay cuts in the public sector, with our real terms pay falling by over 26 percent since 2008. We are not asking for a rise. We are simply demanding a reversal of these pay cuts. No doctor is worth over a quarter less than their counterpart 15 years ago. If anything, our work has been even more challenging due to understaffed and overstretched services. 

Predictably they’ve labelled us ‘greedy’, ‘militant’, ‘selfish’ and ‘reckless’. We’re being gaslit into crossing the picket line in the name of patient safety. This is despite the fact that the BMA held meetings with NHS England four times a day over the last set of strikes in case of any major causality event. Indeed, no derogations were needed, and our consultant and specialist colleagues supported our action in ensuring that patient safety was maintained. 

With over 500 patients dying unnecessarily every week when there is no industrial action, with over 7.2 million on the waiting list for key operations and over 130,000 NHS staff vacancies, we are seeing the harms being done by this government’s crippling underfunding and underinvestment in the NHS and its workforce. Chronic understaffing has put patient care at risk each and every day. Restoring pay is the first step in recruiting and retaining doctors and recovering the damage that has been inflicted on the NHS in recent years. 

My job as a doctor pays me £14 an hour. Doctors at my level are involved in seeing, assessing and treating patients when they cry out in need. We’re helping other junior doctors with ward rounds and surgeries. We’re calling patients’ loved ones, sometimes explaining how and why they’ve passed. We’re requesting, organising and interpreting tests to guide their treatment. And we are dealing with patients presenting with strokes, pneumonia, asthma attacks, bowel obstruction, arrhythmias, heart attacks and more. 

Increasing the remuneration for this work to £19 an hour is not asking the earth. Not only that, but it’s essential if we want to begin to tackle the retention crisis we’re in and the ever-increasing waiting lists for treatment and procedures. With over 9,000 doctor vacancies already, 40 percent of our colleagues are leaving for greener pastures in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Burnout has never been so high as we’re stretching ourselves to cover these gaps in our rota, working horrendous hours with few or no breaks. We cannot go on like this. We will not go on like this. 

Our membership is resolute and unfaltering despite the media’s pathetic and desperate campaign to undermine us with personal attacks and misinformation. We are determined to continue fighting for as long as necessary to get the Secretary of State to the negotiating table. The public overwhelmingly supports us, as do staff members and patients who have passed us on the picket lines. Our fight is their fight. 

To my medical colleagues, let’s hold the line. Let’s reverse the damning effects that austerity has had on our profession and our nation’s health. They’ve gotten away with underpaying us for 15 years and counting, and they’ve bled the NHS and its workforce dry for far too long. But no more. Enough is enough, and we aren’t going anywhere. 

Stick together, stand tall, strike hard.

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