BMA union members stand firm on the picket line outside St Thomas’ hospital in central London as they begin the junior doctors’ strike (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Junior doctors took to picket lines across England on Wednesday, the first day of a six-day strike—the longest in the history of the NHS. 

The BMA union members immediately faced a torrent of abuse from the right wing press and Tory politicians.  

The Daily Express newspaper used its front page to denounce the strike as “an act of cruelty”. It cited MP Paul Bristow, who said doctors’ pay demands are “exorbitant”.  

Bristow has some nerve. Not only does he pocket £86,584 a year as MP, he’s also a landlord, owning two flats and a house in London. And his wife, Sara Bristow, is a lobbyist for—you guessed it—private healthcare. 

At St Thomas Hospital, across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament, picket and GP trainee Jonathan has no such luxury to fall back on. “I’ve got a young family to support and sacrificing a day’s pay is tough,” he told Socialist Worker.  

“The strike is also tough on patients, I recognise that. But if we don’t act now, everything in the NHS is going to get worse.” 

It didn’t take Jonathan long to think of patients suffering on non-strike days because of huge waiting lists and the chronic lack of skilled staff.  

“Take Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example,” he said. “If your child is ten years old and shows signs of having it, it will now likely take years for them to get a specialist appointment. 

“That could mean they go without expert treatment for much of their education.” 

It’s little wonder that so many doctors refer to the ‘moral injury’ associated with working in the NHS. After years of training on how to give the best possible care, they find themselves trapped in an underfunded system that simply can’t deliver it. 

Low pay is one of the key reasons why the NHS is short of tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals. And lack of staff means longer waits. 

“When I tell patients about delays to their care, they are usually very understanding and make a point of saying they’re not angry,” he said. “Well, I think they should be angry. They should be furious.” 

Jonathan is ready for a “prolonged” strike that could run into a general election.  “I don’t think any of the parties are going to save us,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the Commons. “We doctors have got to save ourselves.” 

Tory hopes that patients will turn against the junior doctors were given short shrift by Gillian, a carer from Lewisham, south London. “I’m here to show my support for the strike,” she told Socialist Worker.  

“I go to bed at night worrying about whether the NHS will be able to help the person I care for. The overflowing hospitals have a knock-on effect on ambulances.  

“So, you wonder if anyone will be able to respond if you need help. The NHS is in a critical condition and that’s why I made sure I was on the picket line first thing this morning.” 

Rob Laurenson of the junior doctors’ BMA union also has an answer for the Tory claims of exorbitant pay demands. “We’re fighting so junior doctors now earning just £15 an hour can earn £21 an hour instead,” he said.  

“Meanwhile, we’re doing an ever more difficult job. We’re seeing more patients than ever before and they are far more complex cases than before.  

“That’s our reward for working through the pandemic. That’s a tragedy for all concerned – except those in Westminster. They need to provide a credible offer and a healthcare system that functions.”

How can the junior doctors win?

Junior doctors have struck for 28 days since their dispute began in March last year. 

There can be little doubting its impact. The Tories are faced with the NHS being one of the central issues of a coming election, despite all their attempts to find diversions. 

The strike means millions of appointments have had to be cancelled. But with one in three households affected by rising NHS waiting lists, it’s little surprise to find most are content to blame the government for the strike. 

So far though, the government has not cracked. So, there is a real question though about what the junior doctors must do to win. Some commentators insist the BMA should now sit back and wait for a Labour government. 

The BMA’s Rob Laurenson is unlikely to agree with them. Before Christmas he told Socialist Worker that the union was prepared for many more rounds of action, and new ballots if necessary. 

That said, on the picket lines on Wednesday he told Socialist Worker he’d had “productive” talks with Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. He said that they were “on the same page”.  Fighting for pay restoration is a “journey not an event,” he said. 

But there are real dangers that Labour in government will simply follow the Tory policy on health workers’ pay. Streeting makes it clear that he is opposed to the strike, and talks continually of Labour being opposed to real NHS funding increases. 

A better strategy would involve both more strikes and spreading them to other health workers. It is, for example, great news that junior doctors in Wales will be striking on Monday 15 January. 

If hospital consultants were to reject the government’s pay offer in their ballot that closes at the end of the month, they too could join the picket lines.  

Yet there are bigger forces still that could aid the junior doctors. Hundreds of thousands of health workers remain bitterly angry with last year’s terrible pay deal. Their unions are now starting negotiations for the pay rise that should be implemented in April.  

The Tories have deliberately insulted them by making a late submission to the NHS Pay Review Body, meaning that rise will be delayed. 

And that means everyone—nurses, cleaners, porters, and therapists—should now be gearing up for a new battle. The junior doctors could be a spearhead for a pay revolt of a different scale, one that humbles any government. 

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