Junior doctors have been forced into a corner by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He has managed to insult and alienate NHS staff across the board.
Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, has already indicated her lack of compassion for the NHS by supporting Mr Hunt. Her first big mistake as PM was to re-appoint Mr Hunt as health secretary. Most NHS staff have no confidence in him. Not just doctors. The second mistake is to endorse Mr Hunt as an excellent health secretary and rebuke the BMA.
It’s all in the hands of the Government
The reason the strikes have been announced is the continued reluctance by Mr Hunt to do anything other than impose a new contract, a contract which is unfair and unjust, which junior doctors have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not have confidence in and rejected in a referendum last July. The Government’s position is clearly ideological, given their selective disregard for the supposed evidence base for ‘a seven-day NHS’.
Did anybody believe Ms May when she said, ‘funding is at record levels, with the highest number of doctors employed in the history of the NHS’? She needs to know that the UK has fewer doctors, nurses and beds per head of the population, and less money to spend than comparable countries. Ms May missed an opportunity, she should have replaced Jeremy Hunt as health secretary and instructed the chancellor to find more money. Instead, she chose the path of continual conflict with the BMA and underfunding of the NHS.
Mr Hunt is working hard to divide the profession. He is hoping to exploit divisions in the medical profession over the wisdom of strike action, to force the junior doctors to back down. I sincerely believe that the Academy of Royal Colleges have provided him with the necessary ammunition; before going to press to say they are ‘disappointed’ in the strike they should have known that the long term damage of an imposed unfair contract is far worse than cancelled elective care.
We are struggling to provide a five-day service as it is, in some instances trusts are resorting to treating patients in corridors. We are seeing hospitals close and operations cancelled regularly due to staff shortages. To stretch us even further, without proper investment, will cause greater damage to patients than this strike. Junior doctors have not asked for a pay rise at any point, and the politically ill-thought-out election manifesto pledge of a seven-day NHS is uncosted, not adequately planned for, not necessary and cannot be delivered without a substantial investment from the Government, which is impossible in these financially challenging times.
The NHS is on its knees with crippling deficits, as the majority of foundation trusts put out bogus plans pretending they will balance their books. NHS England is proposing a major re-organisation, under the 44 new local sustainability and transformation plans to meet its £22 billion efficiency savings.
The BMA is saying, without any ‘ifs and buts’, that it will call off the strikes if the Government abandons imposing a tougher new contract in October. It’s all in the hands of the Government. It should be blindingly obvious that no doctor wants such protracted and damaging action that could potentially harm patients.
The Government is responsible for creating the conditions for safe working of our juniors and it is their responsibility to provide and deliver safe services. And to Theresa May I would say: ‘Look at the current state of the NHS and the problems it faces, shouldn’t settling with the junior doctors should be your first priority, rather than defending your incompetent health secretary?’
As the premier of the country you and Hunt must bear responsibility for anything that might go wrong during the industrial action by the juniors, who after all have served the NHS and the country well for generations.
Dr Kailash Chand OBE is a retired GP and former deputy chair of BMA council. You can follow him on Twitter @kailashchandobe