Doctors’ Strike To ‘Send Shockwaves’ Through England’s Health System

Junior doctors in England’s public health service have begun their 10th strike in a year — the latest walk-out in a wider industrial dispute that’s cost billions of dollars and seen more than a million appointments delayed.

These doctors — who are qualified physicians and may have up to 8 years’ experience in hospitals — began a five-day walkout on Saturday.

Experts fear the move will “send shockwaves” through England’s overstretched National Health Service, which is still battling extra pressure from winter illnesses like flu.

Several major staffing groups have walked out over pay and working conditions in the ongoing dispute, which began with a nursing strike back in November 2022.

Various pay deals have since been proposed, accepted and rejected. Some staffing groups have ended their strikes, while junior doctors continue to walk out.

Overall, the industrial action has seen more than 1.3 million appointments delayed, putting extra strain on hospitals already battling lengthy waiting lists.

It’s also thought to have cost the NHS — which provides the bulk of healthcare in the country — more than $3.8 billion (£3 billion) in lost elective activity and increased costs. Hospitals have had to fork out extra cash to staffing agencies and senior employees to help keep services running.

“Every strike sends shockwaves through the NHS, impacting patients and staff with little time to recover in between,” said Sir Julian Hartley, who leads hospital industry group NHS Providers.

They also have serious remifications for workforce morale, he added in a statement. Staff “are pulling out all the stops to bear down on care backlogs but these walkouts are making this a near-impossible task,” he said.

“[Hospital] leaders have put plans in place to keep patients safe but they are dreading another walkout from junior doctors. He said, adding that “both sides of the dispute” need to “redouble their efforts to find a resolution.”

Why are staff striking?

Junior doctors — who are roughly equivalent to residents in the U.S. (and considering changing their job title to reflect this) — previously received an average pay rise of 9% for 2023/24, per the BBC.

Negotiations, including discussion of a further 3% rise, took place last year. But they ended without resolution in December.

Junior doctors argue this increase doesn’t compensate for years of inflation. Union leaders say salaries have long failed to keep pace with rising living costs and want “pay restoration” of 35%.

Low pay, unions claim, leaves employees feeling undervalued and contributes to doctors leaving the country to work overseas.

The NHS medical workforce is already short-staffed, with certain specialties hit particularly hard by Brexit. Better pay, unions say, is needed to attract and retain staff who will become all the more necessary as demand from an ageing population grows.

But the dispute isn’t over pay alone. Working conditions in the country’s hospitals are now often extremely challenging, with overcrowding and long waiting lists the new norm.

Despite the impact of strikes on patients, public opinion still favors striking staff, according to a poll by Savanta published in The Mirror.

The company found 53% of those surveyed supported the doctors, while 46% said the U.K. government was predominantly to blame for strikes.

Only 13% put the blame on medics themselves.

Labor unions have claimed throughout the various strikes that ministers have been unwilling to negotiate.

Leaders from the British Medical Association, which represents the striking doctors, say the government could have prevented the current action by sitting down to talk about pay.

Junior doctors committee co-chairs Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi said in a statement that the government could have “accepted our offer to delay this round of strike action to give more space for talks.”

In return, the union wanted to extend their legal mandate to strike, which is set to expire at the end of the month. It’s is already balloting members to see if they want to open another six-month window to strike.

“With the strength of determination shown by junior doctors across the country we fully expect to see that mandate renewed into the autumn,” Laurenson and Trivedi said. “There is no point in the Government delaying any further. The time to end this dispute is now.”

Health and social care secretary Victoria Atkins, however, called on union leaders to “come back to the table” in a comment piece in the Daily Mail.

“When I speak to constituents and NHS colleagues, what comes up frequently is their desire to feel valued,” she wrote. “They want access to high quality training, the opportunity to diversify into other specialisms, and the flexibility to manage shift patterns which promote a healthy work/life balance.”

Accepting that these were things “the NHS can do better”, she said she wanted “to find a fair and reasonable settlement for patients, junior doctors, and the taxpayer as well as improving working conditions for all staff.”

Industry leaders call for resolution

For now, it’s impossible to tell how long junior doctors will keep on striking. Outside of England, doctors in other U.K. countries are already planning more industrial action.

Junior doctors in Wales walked out earlier this week over what BMA called an “unacceptable” pay rise offer of 5%. They plan to strike again in March, as do junior doctors in Northern Ireland.

Matthew Taylor, who leads industry body NHS Confederation called on ministers and union leaders to be “imaginative” in their approach to resolution.

“I don’t think it helps anyone to try to cast blame. The reality is this is a profoundly demoralising moment for us in the health service, to have another five days of junior doctor strikes,” he told Sky News on Saturday:

“I think what we would say to both sides is don’t stand on ceremony – be imaginative. Maybe it’s time for both sides to tell us what they would accept.

“We kind of know what both sides say that they want, but what would they accept? What compromise would be acceptable?”