Britain’s state-funded health care service is facing what is being described as its longest-ever strike as tens of thousands of doctors in England launched a five-day walkout over pay on July 13.
So-called junior doctors, those who are at the early stages of their careers in the National Health Service in the years after medical school, started their latest strike at 7 a.m., with many of them making their case for a 35% pay rise in picket lines outside hospitals across England.
The British Medical Association, the Doctors’ Union, has asked for a 35% pay rise to bring junior doctors’ pay back to 2008 levels once inflation is taken into account. Meanwhile, the workload of England’s 75,000 or so junior doctors has swelled as patient waiting lists for treatment are at record high levels in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today marks the start of the longest single walkout by doctors in the NHS’s history, but this is still not a record that needs to go into the history books,” said BMA leaders Dr. Robert Laurenson and Dr. Vivek Trivedi.
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They urged the British government, which oversees health policy in England, to drop its “nonsensical precondition” of not negotiating while strikes are in progress. The government, which is facing an array of strikes by public workers across many sectors, is standing firm in its position that it won’t negotiate while the strikes are taking place.
“This five-day walkout by junior doctors will have an impact on thousands of patients, put patient safety at risk and hamper efforts to cut NHS waiting lists,” said Health Secretary Steve Barclay. “A pay demand of 35% or more is unreasonable and risks fuelling inflation, which makes everyone poorer.”
Britain, like other countries, is grappling with high inflation for the first time in years. Price rises were first stoked by supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic and then by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy and food prices soaring. Though inflation has come down slightly from its peak of 8.7%, it remains far above the 2% level the Bank of England is tasked to target.
The doctors’ strike will cause huge disruption for the already embattled NHS, with operations and consultations postponed or even cancelled. Dr. Simon Steddon, Chief Medical Officer at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital trust in South London, urged both sides to get back to the negotiating table amid concerns over the impact on patients. He said that 55,000 appointments and nearly 6,000 planned procedures have already been cancelled or rescheduled at the hospitals he oversees as a result of previous strikes.
“Thousands more will need to be cancelled over the next couple of weeks adding to the significant delay, inconvenience and the inherent risk of a further delay to diagnosis and treatment,” he added.
The doctors taking the strike action say they know the impact of their walkout on the health service, but insist that they have been left with no alternative.
“This isn’t a celebration, this is years of declining pay, declining conditions, frustration, and this is what has culminated as a result,” said Alex Gibbs, a striking 31-year-old doctor said outside University College Hospital in North London.