Junior doctors have suspended their planned strike action for December to allow for talks on a new contract. The doctors voted 98% for industrial action on a turnout of 76%, and announced 3 days of strikes, including two without emergency cover. The strikes were called to stop Health Minister Jeremy Hunt imposing cuts in unsocial hours pay and removing safeguards on shift lengths and patterns. Success for Hunt opens the door to similar attacks across the rest of the NHS workforce.
Hunt has temporarily withdrawn the threat to impose a new contract, but left this to the evening before the first strike making it impossible to reschedule 20,000 operations cancelled in preparation for the strike. Hunt’s intransigence and brinkmanship in withdrawing his threat to impose a worse contract shows the contempt he has for NHS staff and patients. Hunt’s temporary retreat allows the government to avoid outright defeat at the hands of the doctors which could have exposed the government to further challenges on NHS pay, cuts and privatisation.
The BMA has agreed a four week period for talks with the possibility of strike action being resumed in January if there is no agreement. However it is a worrying sign that the BMA has accepted Hunt’s original cost neutral deal as the basis for negotiations, and is handing Hunt the initiative to defuse doctors anger.
Recent disputes in the NHS have resulted in weak deals being made by union leaders with strike action used as a bargaining chip, rather than bringing the full pressure of strikes to bear. This has resulted in severe cuts and attrition of pay and pensions across the NHS. Yet determined action would draw strong support from staff opposed to further pay cuts and the millions who want to defend the NHS. Junior doctors action can win a much better deal.
Junior doctors have accused Hunt of waging a campaign of “vicious lies” to justify the attacks on their terms and conditions, one source describing him as “an inflammatory spin moron” for his misrepresentation of mortality figures for patients admitted to hospital.
Hunt has tried to turn public opinion against the doctors with scare stories of patients being more at risk of dying if admitted at weekends without evidence for this. There are now indications that Hunt’s lies have put patients’ lives at risk as people in need of urgent care delay visits to hospitals at weekends.
Hunt has also tried to mislead the public with announcements of an 11% rise in junior doctors basic pay to distract attention away from the plan to cut 30% bonus for weekend working.
Yet “meet the doctors” stalls across the country have seen the public show strong support for the doctors. A demonstration in London drew 20,000 doctors and supporters. In Oxford half of the consultants at the OUH trust publicly declared their support for the strike.
Support has also come in from trade unions, including Oxfordshire Unison Health branch which issued the following statement
"Oxfordshire Health services branch of Unison fully supports junior doctors taking strike action against plans to impose a new contract that will cut unsocial hours pay and enforce loss of incremental pay. We utterly condemn Jeremy Hunt and his latest attack on the NHS and its staff. We know that if the attack on the junior doctors is successful the government will seek to impose similar cuts on other NHS staff. We call on our branch members to support any picket lines and protests by the junior doctors."