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Thousands of Doctors Take to English Streets to Protest 'Unsafe' New Contracts

VICE News spoke to junior doctors protesting outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, as doctors stage their second 24-hour walkout in 40 years.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 10 2016, 2:40pm

Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Doctors across England are taking part in their second 24-hour walkout in 40 years, as the UK government pushes ahead with new contracts which would see them working longer, more antisocial hours with less pay, they say.

Some of those striking told VICE News they were considering emigrating because more work would push them to breaking point, and emphasized that having a doctor who was exhausted could mean the difference between life and death for a patient.

"Tired people make mistakes," said Alice Carter, 36, who works in anesthetics and intensive care, outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, on Wednesday. 

She added that there are already strict regulations on airline pilots and truck drivers, so why shouldn't there be similar safeguards for doctors — who often deliver lifesaving treatment.

Related: In Photos: Thousands of Medical Workers Protest Pay Cuts and Longer Hours in London

The deal would see a 11 percent basic pay rise, but additional remuneration for those working weekends would be reduced. The British Medical Association (BMA) has suggested halving the wage increase in return for keeping extra payments for working on Saturdays, something which has been rejected by the government.

Speaking on Wednesday, a Department of Health spokesperson said the strike was "completely unnecessary" adding: "It is very disappointing that tens of thousands of patients and National Health Service (NHS) staff have been inconvenienced by the BMA."

The industrial action is being held by junior doctors, a moniker which refers to doctors who have graduated but are still undergoing specialist training to become consultants or family doctors. Those who fall within this category may have graduated more than 10 years ago and are generally between the ages of about 25 and 40.

Junior doctors protest outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Formal talks broke down in January, after another planned walkout was avoided. Thousands of doctors, nurses, and former patients took to the streets of London on Saturday, holding aloft placards representing their colleagues who were working that weekend or had already left the country. 

On Wednesday, nearly 3,000 operations were canceled and many other appointments were disrupted, though junior doctors who were on call for emergency services on Wednesday were still working when required.

Junior doctors make up around a third of all medical staff and there are more than 55,000 of them in the UK, though those in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales will not be included in the new contract.

Outside the Royal London Hospital on Wednesday, demonstrators had organized shifts so at least a dozen would be outside throughout the day.

Carter, 36, said she was taking a stand against three things: the hours, the pay, and the "government's agenda." She explained that she has worked one of every three weekends for the 13 years she has been training. "If we're not going to increase the total number of doctors," she said, the new contract could only result in staff being "overtired and overstretched."

Carter also accused the government of "using misleading statistics" for what was clearly a "cost-cutting exercise."

"More people than before will go abroad," said Andrew Aswani, 40, who has been a junior doctor for 16 years. Aswani has worked in Australia where he said the conditions were much more favorable. "[The contract] can't make things better, it'll make things worse," he said.

Junior doctors protest outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Kate Flavin, 33, has been a junior doctor for 11 years and said she was "absolutely livid" when she heard of the new contracts. "You're already working your bum off and have exams."

Flavin echoed the sentiments of a lot of other healthcare workers, when she said she doesn't think Health Minister Jeremy Hunt cares, and his move to impose the contracts rather than properly listening to the concerns of the doctors was evidence of that. 

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Hunt described the industrial action as "very damaging" and said it was "important" to note that less junior doctors were participating in this strike than had taken part before. "I think it's a good deal, it's a fair deal," he said.

Within the NHS, however, Flavin said the consultants she worked with had been "very supportive. Everyone's behind it 100 percent."

"At the end of teaching [the lecturers] will say good luck," Sanjueet Chana noted. The 31-year-old has been a junior doctor for seven years and said he was "despondent" when he heard about the new contract.

Related: Thousands of Doctors Walk Out of England's Hospitals in First Strike in 40 Years

Das Ragavan, 37, was also feeling somewhat pessimistic. He told VICE News that he didn't think Wednesday's strike would be pivotal, but hoped that continuing to raise awareness was changing public opinion. He had gone in to work with other junior doctors at 7.30am to make sure everything was in order for the day, before they began protesting at 8am.

"We have to believe [the strike will] be successful," Helen Hughes, 28, said. She's been a junior doctor for seven years and works in pediatrics. "If it's not successful [and the contract is enforced] in its entirety I think we'll be sliding towards a privatized healthcare system which I don't want to work in."

"If it comes to the point where we have to make decisions on people's health versus whether they can pay, I would refuse to work there."

"I don't think any of us would argue it's a perfect system," Hughes said, but added that while the NHS had its flaws, in a publicly funded system there also needed to be leeway and an understanding that better results needed to be accompanied by more funding.

Hughes said she's worked in New Zealand, and that's where she'd return if this contract goes through. "Us leaving is not an empty threat," she said.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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