Next Wednesday (10 February), Junior Doctors will take another day’s strike action. Here, Sophie Walton gives an update on where things stand with the dispute.
Where are we now?
Junior doctors are set to strike once again as they continue to fight the imposition of a new contract that compromises on anti-social hours and career progression.
Negotiations have moved on significantly since the New Year. NHS Employers reports that compromises have been reached with the BMA on safeguards for juniors’ working hours, on maintaining career progression protection in some circumstances, and reducing the number of long days and night shifts doctors can be expected to work.
However, one major sticking point remains for the junior doctors committee: Saturday is not the same as Tuesday. Regardless of NHS Employers offering a 1 hr reduction in week day hours, and 2 hour on Saturday, the contract in its current form would see plain-time hours extended to cover 7 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 7 am to 5 pm on Saturday. The BMA is resolute that weekend work must be recognised as anti-social.
There are no timelines for how the most concerning compromises in the contract will be implemented. How will NHS Employers ensure doctors who take time out for childcare will have their added experiences, and therefore responsibilities at work realised? What about junior doctors moving onto new contracts, or medical students due to begin on this contact? There won’t be any pay protection for them. It is these doctors who will be defending this contract against the future threats to the profession, and the NHS.
Before Christmas, junior doctors were emailed questionnaires asking what in the contract they opposed most, which many described as “choosing between water and oxygen”. It is difficult to tell how fixed the offers and compromises are in this latest contract offer. Who knows what the choices are at the moment.
What is certain is that tens of thousands of doctors are ready to walk out on the 10 February to defend their right to a well-balanced life that enables them to be effective at work, but any compromise on this last demand will be demoralising for the whole movement.
It will also come as a shock to the tens of thousands of junior doctors and medical students who have chanted “BMA BMA” at picket lines and demonstrations over the past 6 months. Their new found enthusiasm for the BMA as a trade union will only last as long as it can negotiate for a fair contact. One too many compromises, and it will lose its new grassroots membership.
What is next?
The next action, a 24 hour walk-out from 8 am on Wednesday 10 February, was built to be a full walk out, including doctors working on emergency services. The day’s actions have now been scaled back to same level of action as in the first strike action in January. While the action will still limit hospitals’ elective and out-patient capacity, some have seen this as taking the teeth out of continued industrial action, but the BMA feared a full walk out might test public support for junior doctors too far.
There is a third demonstration planned for this Saturday (6 February), which will bring together junior doctors, medical students, consultants and nursing bursary campaigners, as well as NHS users and defenders on the streets of London.
Beyond the strike
It is clear that junior doctors are not alone in their fight. Solidarity from other health workers, patients, patient-groups and NHS campaigners has flowed in from the beginning of the contact campaign.
All health workers know that if the junior doctors don’t win, their contracts will be next. Junior doctors have taken to shopping centres and train stations to tell people why they have to take the difficult decision to strike.
This energy can’t stop when the strikes end, or if they are called off. The BMA has called for solidarity from other unions; we need to make sure that this is reciprocated in the next fight, with the BMA and junior doctors being ready to support their colleagues. We need to build solidarity on the ground now.