Big protests by junior doctors are unprecedented. An NHS activist reports from the demo in central London on Saturday against proposed government changes to their contracts.
The demo was really big, with attendance at between 15,000 and 20,000. Those present included medical students alongside doctors, and senior doctors as well. The crowd was extremely diverse, with women in the majority. Most medics in training are now women, and the demo reflected that.
Small groups of nurses from different hospitals had come down to show support, but completely independent of any union organisation. There was almost no Unite, UNISON or RCN presence in terms of banners or flags.
It was even more striking that there was almost no presence from the BMA either. There were no BMA banners, placards or leaflets – all the placards seemed to be produced by the campaign, not by the union. At the same time there was lots of support for the BMA. Several times the entire crowd were chanting “BMA, BMA, BMA” – which is pretty inconceivable with any other union at present.
The message from the doctors who spoke was strongly in defence of the NHS and against privatisation. Most of those who spoke have been doing the public appearances in the media, or have challenged Jeremy Hunt on Question Time and at other events. There was a real fighting spirit from the doctors, several saying from the stage that they were willing to strike, and getting loud cheers. The emphasis was on striking to get a fair contract – that they were being pushed into this by the government, and that going on strike was a last resort, but they were willing to do it.
There were two BMA speakers, one from the Junior Doctor Council, and a senior BMA rep. The senior BMA person seemed a little overwhelmed by it all, stating that they had got the message clearly from junior doctors as to what they wanted, and they were going to continue negotiating until they had a safe and fair contract, and not stop till then.
It’s going to be crucial for doctors to keep building local hospital-level organisation, which brought so many people out on Saturday. That can mobilise people and keep up the pressure on Hunt, supporting the negotiators if required, but also making sure that the BMA sticks to the firm position we heard clearly from the protest at the weekend.
This was a great demo, with a strong message throughout against privatisation and cuts. It situated the struggle in the context of the government’s assault on the NHS – that if they did this to doctors everyone else would be next. I met a doctor friend at the end of it who said she used to be against striking, but after the speeches and demo she was up for it and prepared to do it. Strike action may still be needed to get the government to back down. The junior doctors are clearly ready for that.