For the first time in 40 years, junior doctors in England have gone on strike. Their dispute with the government is over new contracts proposed by the health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Under these plans, junior doctors will have to work until 10 PM without overtime, and Saturday will be added to their normal working week. Considering the massive effect this will have on junior doctors' working lives, it's perhaps unsurprising that 98 percent of them voted in favor of strike action.
We went down to the picket at Brighton's Royal Sussex County hospital to meet the junior doctors sticking it to Jeremy Hunt, who today described their strike as "completely unnecessary."
Dr. Sarah Kingdon, a 29-year-old junior doctor, was among hundreds on the picket line when we arrived. "I'm out here because the new junior doctor contract will make changes to my working conditions, which will make my life very difficult," she explained. "I'm a mother and the anti-social hours of the job already make life difficult. They're trying lengthen our 'normal' working day—making us work until 10 PM as standard—and add Saturday to the working week. They're trying to pay us less to work more hours; not only more hours, but more hours that will have an impact on our family lives and our lives outside of work."
Kingdon said that the new contracts will put patient safety at risk by stretching a limited number of staff even further. "We're going to be made to work a lot more night shifts and our time will be spent doing more 'fire-fighting' roles across the hospital," she said. "We'll have less time to get to know patients properly, as you do in normal daytime shifts—so basically you'll have fewer doctors who know the patients well and it will end up slowing the whole system down."
Dr. Lucy Bentley and Dr. Sam Gilbert
Standing next to the main road in front of the hospital encouraging passing cars to beep their horns, Dr. Sam Gilbert and Dr. Lucy Bentley said that they feared the junior doctors' dispute was part of a larger scheme to weaken and eventually privatize the NHS.
"I'm of the opinion that there's a kind of grinding down of the workforce going on, eventually leading to privatization of certain aspects of the NHS," Gilbert said.
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"You look at other countries like the United States where there are people quite literally dying because they can't afford simple diabetic medication or life-saving operations," Bentley said. "It's so important to fight for the NHS now. It might start with changing our contracts, tweaking them here and there, and I think this is the beginning of something that essentially changes the NHS. I think that's the view that many of us have. We all talk about it. We talk about it in the pub. We talk about it at work. We're all really worried about it. All of us want a safe and fair contract for a safe and fair NHS."
"It's a shame that we've come into the NHS when things are the way they are. Morale is down. There's a lot of negative press everyday and no one that I know has selfish views at their heart. We genuinely do want a safer, better NHS. We want the NHS to still be there when we're more senior doctors."
But maybe these junior doctors are simply left-wing agitators—"in the grip of advanced Corbynitis," as mayor of London Boris Johnson put it last weekend. Do they really know what's good for the NHS? Can you really have patients' best interests at heart when you give a dog your stethoscope for a laugh?
The customer, we are told, is always right. Given the NHS is already semi-privatized, it seemed only fair to ask the customers what they thought about doctors going on strike. With this in mind, I went in search of some customers, i.e. patients of the Royal Sussex hospital, to pick their brains.
77-year-old Barry Salvage is a regular at the hospital and had nothing but praise for the junior doctors.
"I come here quite a lot with various infections," he told us. "I find them very helpful, the doctors. They work day and night. They're tired in the middle of the night and they have so much responsibility. I think they're worth every penny. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here today."
"The government are responsible for this strike," Barry continued. "The government are penny-pinching as usual. They say: 'We're going to give this to the patients, give that to the patients,' then they penny-pinch and get it back."
In the reception of the hospital, I met Mrs. Brown and her mother Mrs. Walls.
"My opinion is that they simply need to strike for more money because they should be paid a lot more for what they do!" Brown said.
"They are underpaid and over-worked for what they do. I'm 88 years old and I come here for lots of things, but I find them absolutely fantastic. They're doing the best they possibly can with what they've got," her mother, Mrs. Walls, added.
"When you think of a footballer who's kicking a ball about, and he gets paid an absolute fortune while doctors and nurses are very poorly paid," Brown said, "I don't think they get paid enough and the strike shouldn't be needed."
Two more days of strike action are planned over the coming weeks. With polling showing that 66 percent of England supports the strike, it seems the Tory government may have picked a fight that is particularly hard to win. With the Sunsaying the strike leaders are "Moët medics" and "champagne socialists," slamming their "high life," perhaps that support could waver. But I guess it's pretty hard to make people who spend their day saving peoples' lives look like the bad guys.
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