The junior doctor contract governs the pay and conditions of work from doctors’ foundation year to registrar level. All doctors who are not consultants or fully qualified GPs are considered ‘junior’ doctors. This contract was scheduled for renegotiation, but the British Medical Association (BMA) – the largest representative body of doctors – walked away because the offer on the table was not fair to doctors and not safe for patients.
The government’s initial response was brazen, and threatened to impose the new terms without consultation – a position it has had to water down since the BMA decided to ballot its members for strike action. Here’s why the BMA has done so the first time in 40 years:
1. An NHS in crisis: overworked and undervalued.
Britain’s doctors have had enough. In a stretched and underfunded health system which doesn’t train enough doctors and nurses to meet its own needs – or invest in the infrastructure needed for new hospitals and facilities unless a private contractor is taking a nice slice of the pie – the solution seems to have been ‘work harder and take up the slack’. According to the Royal College of Physicians, the NHS “remains reliant on doctors working longer than their contracted hours…the amount of ‘goodwill work’ is increasing year-on-year.”
Trusts struggling to pay their tithes to the private owners of NHS hospital buildings have responded by reducing staff salaries, meaning fewer doctors and nurses are covering more patients and expected to do so for free. The situation has reached crisis point and doctors are experiencing enormous burnout, with more doctors applying to live abroad every year. Into this context came the new contract.
2. It’s not about the money.
The ‘offer’ of the new contract has been condemned first and foremost as fundamentally unsafe. Just as with the recent tube strike, the new contract threatens to force doctors to work longer and later with fewer safeguards.
The BMA approached negotiations acknowledging financial limitations but determined to improve safety: it wanted no doctor to work more than 72 hours in a week; no more than four nights in a week on-call; a rest day either side of nights before starting back on day shifts; and facilities to sleep-in for those who otherwise make a dangerous long drive home.
The government was unwilling to accept these terms, and furthermore wanted to reduce breaks to just one 30 minute break in a ten hour on-call shift. As a recent viral video asked, could you save a life if you’d been up all night?
3. But it is, also, about the money.
The new contract would mean a 15-40% pay-cut depending on your specialism, with GPs and emergency care doctors being some of the hardest hit. Let that sink in.
With wages starting beneath the national median and decreasing yearly like all public sector pay, and out of pocket expenditure for licensing, exams and indemnities, junior doctors earn significantly less than the tabloids would have you believe. Their reports often use a cunning sleight of hand: taking the figures for the pay of those doctors doing the most private work – GPs who run a private practice and some consultants who run private clinics – and presenting the data as proof of ‘greedy’ public sector workers.
There are two ways doctors’ starting wages increase: extra pay for unsociable hours, and pay advancement as you progress through the ranks of seniority and responsibility. Both of these are under threat in the new contract.
The government has suggested that working from 7am until 10pm Monday to Saturday are sociable hours – and therefore should not be paid extra – which is funny considering MPs just reduced their own working hours and increased their own pay. As for pay progression with seniority, no actual offer was made.
4. The changes hit women hardest.
The contract changes penalise those who take time out to start a family and those who work part-time – overwhelmingly affecting women in both cases. Additionally there are concerns that changes to breaks will make work more dangerous for pregnant women. As noted above GPs will be amongst those taking the largest wage cut, one of the few specialisms with more women than men.
5. No confidence in Jeremy Hunt.
More than 200k people signed the petition to debate a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt. He wrongly and infamously implied that doctors don’t work at night or weekends. After blaming the A&E crisis last winter on people attending inappropriately (rather than, say, the reduction of roughly 13k hospital beds over the last five years), Mr Hunt felt it was appropriate to take his own children to A&E rather than wait for an appointment like, you know, the rest of us commoners.
But most of all:
6. This was an imposition, not a negotiation.
Hunt and the government have shown a complete disdain for even the barest semblance of actual negotiation. When the BMA walked away from negotiations a year ago, it wasn’t as a strategy to get better terms, it was because the negotiations were a farce. It has taken the threat of industrial action for a pathetic attempt at reconciliation to come from the Department of Health, full of vague, unconvincing rhetoric. It is too little, too late. No fruitful discussions can continue with Hunt as health secretary. We have no reason to believe in his word or his competence.
We deserve more. Doctors do not take strike action lightly. Whilst we will always maintain emergency and essential services, the BMA will be balloting its members to strike against the contract in the next month. We hope to see you on the picket lines.
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