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Junior doctors risk losing public support

As a BMA member since student days and now retired from general practice, I was horrified by the decision of the junior doctors to have a full blown strike.

To give the impression that you are prepared to be seen, standing by, holding placards, refusing to treat seriously injured or ill patients, kills off the most valuable asset any campaign can have: public support. That same support from all sides killed off the proposed welfare cuts in the budget.

Do not ignore the importance of keeping the public on your side

If the junior doctors lose people’s support, they lose the battle.

The public already feels that graduate doctors are well-treated by taxpayers, with their hugely-subsidised degree, guaranteed job prospects on graduation and choice of well-paid part- and full-time jobs when the junior days are over. Their perpetual complaining and ‘Save our NHS’ posters do not go down well, even before any full blown strike.

The public knows many doctors like my stepdaughter, who is a three-day-a-week GP with young family, earns a salary better than many full-time workers and never has to work any unsocial hours. How many other young graduates have that privilege? My son has a well paid job he enjoysas a consultant in emergency medicine. Though he is often tired and works nights and weekends, that is what he expected when he chose to work in that field. It was his choice.

The public does understand the issues. They realise that although junior doctors will get a 13% pay rise, many of them make up their salaries with overtime at special rates and for them a pay cut may result in serious family budget problems. They are happy that anyone who works more hours than they are contracted to do should be paid for those hours, it is only the rate of pay for them that is in dispute. Whether this rate should be higher and how much higher, depends on what any employer can afford. As the NHS budget grows almost as fast as you can print money, the population ages and medical advances race ahead, the extra money will have to come from other areas of big spending like education, welfare, pensions or tax. The last is obviously preferable and the BMA should be playing its part by canvassing politicians of all shades to persuade the public of this and agree a non partisan multi-party approach to raising income tax, specially set aside to cover what is necessary for the NHS to thrive.

The irony of all this is that the BMA made a similar mistake when Kenneth Clarke introduced his new contract in the early 90s. An attacking campaign was launched with big pictures of Kenneth Clarke on roadside hoardings denigrating his attitude to the NHS. It had the reverse effect from that intended. The public did not protest at his proposed changes despite doctor opposition, and the new contract went through, heralding the beginning of targets and later unpopular ideas, like fund holding for GPs.

The lesson learned then should not be ignored and the last thing young doctors need is another own goal. Do not ignore the importance of keeping the public on your side.

Dr Erl Annesley is a retired GP