Junior doctors on the picket line at University College Hospital in central London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Thousands of doctors defied bosses, the government and right wing pressure to begin a massive strike across England on Wednesday.

The walkout marks the 26th day of action since the start of the pay dispute and is set to last for three days. 

Hospital managers have drafted in senior doctors to provide emergency cover, but most planned appointments and treatments are cancelled. 

This latest strike will be followed by a six-day walkout at the start of January—the longest in the history of the NHS. 

It comes after talks between the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), and the government broke down earlier this month. 

NHS bosses are furious with the strike and have jumped onside with the government. One trust chief executive even suggested that the union’s timing was a “moral issue” designed to cause “maximum disruption”. 

And, in an effort to divide the NHS’s medical workforce, the Guardian newspaper shamefully reported that consultants were increasingly “frustrated” by having to cover for the strikes— without quoting a single doctor saying so.

Pickets at the lively 100-strong protest giant UCH hospital in central London weren’t having any of that.

“My consultants have been really clear. They’ve said, you strike and we’ll support you. Everyone who works in the health service stands together. We’re a team,” said Nwando, an obstetrician who qualified as a doctor more than ten years ago.

She told Socialist Worker that even after a decade of work she still struggles to make ends meet.

“I’m experienced, and I’m doing a PhD, but despite all that my pay is so low that I still struggle to pay bills. 

“I love my job, and I work with great people. There’s a great camaraderie. But that is being eroded by what’s happening to the NHS. 

“Our working conditions are casting a shadow of death. People are dying because they are not getting the right standard of care. And that,

On the picket line at Bristol Royal Infirmary

combined with low pay, is leading to demoralisation. The NHS runs on staff goodwill, and that is fast running out.”

David, a psychiatrist working in north west London, also sees low pay as part of the wider health service crisis. 

“In the five years since I started everything has been cut,” he said. “My service no longer has any admin support, which means I spend an increasing amount of my time dealing with forms, rather than patients.

“Then I find myself endlessly apologising to my patients for the poor quality of service they are getting. People are falling through gaps in the system all the time, especially as community services are falling apart.

“The pressure that creates is ridiculous and that itself becomes a moral injury. A lot of people who work in the NHS are suffering from their own mental health problems.

“Pay is a big part of that. I’ve got colleagues that are really suffering, especially those working and living in London. 

“But then you hear from friends you went to med school with who are now working in Germany or Canada, and they describe the services they provide there. I’m so taken aback by their quality of life, why can’t it be like that here?”

Everyone Socialist Worker spoke to was optimistic that their action will get a result, and they were determined to continue until they do.

BMA rep Dr Robert Laurenson is helping lead the strike nationally. He told Socialist Worker that the government is trying to present a tough image, but that doctors’ action is working. 

“They are on the ropes, and that’s because of the strength and power of the union,” he said.

“So far, we’ve forced them to offer more money even after they said they wouldn’t make another offer. But the offer wasn’t enough. Now we’re hearing that they are about to make a new ‘final offer’. They’d better do that soon or their position will be untenable.”

Lawrenson was furious with those who blame the junior doctors’ strikes for the mess the NHS is in and for damaging patient care.

“Every year we are in a ‘winter crisis’. Every year we are practising ‘corridor medicine’ – because hospitals are full.  Shame on us for not standing up to this situation sooner.”

And he added that the union would continue to “stand firm”. “There’s no cap on the number of rounds of strikes we are prepared to take,” he said. “And no cap on the number of strike re-ballots. 

“It took 15 years for them to erode our pay by a third, and we are not insisting on winning all that back in one go. We are open to a multi-year deal. But no matter what, we’ll keep fighting until there’s a credible offer.”

Welsh reinforcements are on their way

Junior doctors in Wales this week announced that they too will be striking over pay after a massive vote for action. 

A 72-hour full walkout is set to start on 15 January, with some 3,000 doctors expected to join in.

Some 98 percent of BMA Wales members voted to strike on a turnout of 65 percent.

The Labour-run Welsh government offered a rise of just 5 percent—despite doctors’ pay being slashed by nearly a third in 15 years.

Joe, a surgical junior doctor in South Wales, told Socialist Worker there was a strong mood to hit back.

“Many junior doctors in Wales are seeing this as a fight with the Tories in Westminster, rather than with the Welsh government.  

“I can understand that. After all, it’s the Tories who want the NHS to fail so they can smash it up and privatise it. But some of us older ones are sceptical about Labour too.  

“I was around when Labour pushed privatisation through its PFI schemes, and when it slashed bed numbers.

“And when I heard shadow health secretary Wes Streeting last week saying the NHS uses winter pressures as a yearly excuse, I was furious. He should come here and have a look at what’s happening on the ground.

“Hospitals are in crisis all year round, but from Autumn to Spring it’s even worse. I’m sorry not to have better words, but it’s a shit show. 

“And that’s why the strike is so important. It’s a fight to save the profession and the whole NHS.”

Joe says that being a junior doctor is known for being difficult because of the long hours and lack of staff. But that now low pay is adding to the stress.

“There was this attitude that the job is tough, but you’ll pull through,” he said. 

“But now, because of the extraordinarily long hours, young junior doctors are actually working for less than the minimum wage. 

“And low pay is closing the profession to working class people at a time when we need many more people to start training. It means that only those with financial backing will be able to train as a doctor.

“The state invests between a quarter and half a million pounds training each one of us. But now junior doctors are being lured abroad because pay here is so rubbish. What a stupid waste that is.”

And Joe says that immigration laws are making it harder to keep doctors from overseas working in the NHS. “The Home Office recently told a colleague in my team to stop working as he was here illegally—he wasn’t.

“He’s worked as an NHS doctor here for more than a year, but we sent him home because of a technicality. In that time, of course, he couldn’t see patients or provide care.

“It turned out that our overstretched human resources department didn’t fill in a Home Office form correctly and that led to our colleague being barred from work—without pay—for six weeks. 

“So, not only are we losing highly trained staff to work abroad, but we are also creating a threatening culture for those that come from abroad to work in the NHS. It’s disastrous.”

Senior doctors in Wales are also balloting for strikes.

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