‘My duty is to save lives’ – rs21 interviews junior doctors on the front line

Both the recent junior doctors’ strike over new contract terms and the student nurses’ protest against the withdrawal of bursaries have been widely covered. Charlie Jarsve spoke to two junior doctors about why they are taking action, support from the public, and the future of the NHS.

Junior Doctors' rally in Oxford (Photo: John Walker)


How long have you been a junior doctor?

5 years.

And have you been a member of the BMA for that long?

I’ve been a member of the BMA for the last year.

Were you mainly drawn in by the dispute over contracts?


As the dispute has become more generalised, have you noticed people becoming more actively engaged in the BMA?

Since the whole issue arose I think people have been drawn more to the BMA because of the legal issues involved.

Obviously this is a very new experience for many. Have you found it difficult? What support have you had?

Most of the organisation has been done by the BMA reps in the hospital. They’ve been very good at everything and informing us of what’s going on. I personally haven’t been involved with organising picketing, that’s mainly been done by the BMA reps.

Were you at the protests in London last year?


Have you been involved in political activity before?

Not really no; this is the first subject or topic that’s really close to my heart, something that affects me personally. I suppose that’s the reason I was led to this job in the first place. The protest in London which happened on 17 October was the first one I’d ever been to.

That was probably the experience of most at that protest, which is part of the reason why this action is so exciting. We’re seeing the will to fight back from a sector that’s been used as a political football for so long. Are you on the Junior Doctors’ Facebook group?

Yes. It’s very useful listening to others’ viewpoints and experiences, especially with this strike day coming up. There have been some trusts that have tried to declare today as a ‘Black Emergency’ alert day, calling staff in to try and undermine the strike. So it was interesting just to see what was happening in other places. The group’s been very useful for organising across the country.

There’s an enormous degree of solidarity between the nurses and junior doctors; the nurses are planning to walk out with you on 10 February. Can you see any other ways of building that solidarity?

I think the solidarity largely comes from how closely we work together on a day-to-day basis. We face the same problems in terms of staffing, hours, etc. But that support definitely needs to be taken further, especially in how we organise together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the nurses’ demo on Saturday, because I was on call.

Things look hopeful. You’ve got public opinion on side. It’s interesting that a professional body like the BMA has been forced into effectively taking on the function of a union, which just demonstrates the impasse that’s been reached over the contracts. It also demonstrates a fighting spirit among doctors. Are you hopeful about your chances?

I really really hope we’re successful, because if the contract comes through it will have long -asting implications. Already F1s and F2s that I know aren’t even bothering to apply for further training, and a lot of them are leaving to go to Australia and New Zealand. The only people left behind will be people already on training posts, and we’ll be stretched even further to cover, relying more heavily on local doctors, who are usually payed five or six times the salary of normal salaried doctors, which will obviously haemorrhage NHS finances even further. In the next five to ten years, we simply won’t have the trained staff to run the NHS.

So, all things going well, if you beat the contracts, do you see yourself staying in political activity?

Definitely, the one thing for me personally – like I said, I’ve never been involved in rallies or protests before – but I think this whole experience has shown me the power that you can have when you stand up together and fight, and it’s definitely something I’ll be more involved in. I think a lot of Doctors will be. I think before we didn’t know our rights, and the things we could and couldn’t do to fight this.

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With increased Government racism in counter-terrorism and immigration legislation, one thing doctors are being asked to do more and more is to check the visa status of patients. How do you think this relates to your dispute today?

As a Doctor my duty is to save lives. Doctors are not border police. If a patient comes in from a road traffic accident requiring an urgent blood transfusion, and I have to ask what their visa status is, does this make any sense when they need urgent medical treatment?

Look at America, where lives are at risk when people don’t have the money for care – this isn’t even happening in the third world.

We can save a lot of money by investing in staff and infrastructure, rather than penalising medical professionals and scapegoating migrants.

How useful have the BMA been? Have a significant number joined the BMA since last summer?

This is something that applies to all Doctors, whether you’re in the BMA or not. I personally know people who are not BMA, who are still joining the strike and still having a voice, because at the end of the day this is not about the BMA as an organisation: it’s about showing unity, showing the public and government that we are united regardless of our status or professional position.

This isn’t about the money, and it isn’t even about the job. It’s about saving Universal Health and saving the NHS. As a Doctor, this is our duty, so we feel like whether we are BMA members or not, we still have to support the cause.

The Student Nurses are protesting about cuts to bursaries as well, and they’re planning to walk out with you on 10 February. Can you see any further ways to build on that solidarity?

The NHS is already struggling with nursing staff. While15 Nurses are required in A&E, you only get 7 to cover the shifts, and they are stretched, and the wards are full. I absolutely cannot understand stopping further training for Nurses. We will stand united, because, at the end of the day, when we are struggling in the ward, and at night time in A&E, we see how difficult it is for nursing staff to look after their patients. If they are already struggling with a shortage of nurses, cutting bursaries and educational support is only going to put the public at further risk.

In terms of organising the strike have you found social media has been helpful?

Certainly, social media has been helpful. There have been panels and posters in the hospital, the BMA has been in touch continuously, and this is universal – it’s not just happening in one place.

Are you optimistic about the strikes?

It’s tricky to predict – the public are supporting us, and we feel that the government have a duty to listen to professionals when we say these contracts are not safe. The public has to show support, but if we continue to stand together I’m very hopeful. I’ve seen support from the public everywhere today, and people have shown great solidarity. They’re standing with us in this cold weather, so that shows the level of support.


Picket lines at St Mary's hospital





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