On 12 January, junior doctors across England withdrew their labour from the NHS as part of a historic strike. On paper, the dispute is about the terms and conditions of junior doctors’ contracts – which would see all doctors below consultant level forced to work longer and more antisocial hours for less pay.
It is also a decisive moment in the broader struggle to save the NHS. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s bullish tactics have triggered the first doctors’ strike in 40 years, with a near-unanimous mandate of 98% of all doctors balloted by the British Medical Association (BMA). As the government and media spin the strike as the sectional action of self-interested doctors, an upsurge of public support is giving momentum to the doctors’ struggle. According to polls, at least two thirds of the public support the strike – even more if you canvas reactions on the picket lines.
In London, a group of 20 self-described ‘patients – past, present, and future’ met early on the morning of the strike to form a two-wheeled ‘flying’ bicycle picket. Beginning at the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel, the cyclists braved rush-hour traffic to bring a movable feast of solidarity, banners and biscuits to striking doctors at six central London hospitals. Warm-hearted moments ensued on chilly picket lines.
Here are four big reasons why you should get together with some friends and head down to give visible support to your local picket line on the next strike days – Tuesday 26 January and Wednesday 10 February.
1. This isn’t about greedy doctors: it’s about the future of the NHS.
If you ask a junior doctor, they will likely tell you that the strike isn’t about pay, but patient safety. This is undoubtedly true: if ‘normal working hours’ are extended and safeguards to prevent excessive hours are removed, mistakes will be made by tired, overworked, demoralised doctors.
More significantly, however, the junior doctor contract will see a haemorrhage of doctors from the NHS. Without sufficient junior doctors, the NHS will cease to function. A well-tested tactic of privatisation is to chronically under-resource an effective public service, declare it to be ‘failing’, and transfer it to the private sector. A dedicated workforce of highly-skilled doctors and other health workers is the biggest asset the NHS has and undermining this is a critical step in dismantling the NHS. The scrapping of NHS bursaries for midwives and nurses will tend to the same end.
Many doctors, already stretched to breaking point, have said the contract will make it almost impossible for them to remain in the NHS. More and more will join almost half of all doctors who do not complete their training, or move abroad. We will also see demoralised doctors increasingly moving from the public to the private sector in search of better pay and conditions: in other words, a transfer of public assets into private hands.
Doctors are striking because they care: about their patients and about the NHS.
2. We all need the NHS.
There are plenty of well-referenced articles out there demonstrating the devastating and inequitable social and medical effects of a fragmented, privatised, for-profit health system. We only need look to the US to see the road that lies ahead if the Conservatives are allowed to push forward with the systematic dismantling of the NHS. It is not possible to provide effective, universal healthcare in a privatised health system – especially when those who need it the most are often the least able to pay.
Fundamentally it comes down to this: we are all past, present, and future patients of the NHS – from our first newborn health checks to the dignified palliative care we may require at the ends of our lives, and everything in between. The NHS is there for us, our families, and our friends at the darkest, most frightening moments in our lives: everyone has their own NHS story. Our lives and our health literally depend on a well-resourced, public, free and democratic health service and the committed and highly-skilled staff who make it work.
3. This is a decisive moment in the fight to save the NHS.
Let’s not mince our words – the Tories are killing the NHS: a slow poisoning, rather than a dramatic bullet to the heart. The junior doctors’ strike is the first time that a real focal point of confrontation has emerged in the struggle for the future of the NHS.
Politically, front-door privatisation has never been an option: free healthcare provision will be the last thing to go. Instead, we are seeing a slow, painful process of back-door dismantling and asset-stripping through chronic under-resourcing and underfunding, privatisation of service provision and management, and the closure of various critical services, including A&E departments, maternity units, and NHS Direct. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of free NHS services from migrants is the first step in removing universal healthcare provision and embedding a payment system into the NHS.
With the junior doctors’ strike, a frontline fight has emerged. It is the first time since the Tories came to power that doctors have stepped into a public and vocal role about the future of the NHS: the strike has become a lightning rod for the struggle to save the NHS.
4. The government can only win if it divides doctors from patients.
The only option left to Hunt and co. is to attempt to smear doctors as acting in their own interests and against patients’ interests. But they are rapidly losing the battle to control the narrative of the strike.
Every time we visit picket lines and make visible the overwhelming public support for the strike, we chip away at the corrosive, divisive media narrative the government is spinning. It isn’t difficult – you just need a couple of mates who don’t mind waking up early and some kickass signs. Even better, mobilise a larger group in your area! Bicycles are optional.
It is time for all of us to show that patients support the junior doctors – that their struggle is our struggle. Get organising!
Photos: Elly Robson
If you want to support media for a different politics, you can donate or subscribe to Novara Media at support.novaramedia.com.