‘THE clear message we are trying to get across is that this is a fight for the future of the NHS,’ BMA junior doctors committee chair Dr Johan Malawana told an audience of medical professionals on Friday.
He was answering questions at the BMJ careers fair in north London after giving an outline of the battle over government’s planned imposition of a new junior doctors contract that would see doctors working up to 90 hours a week with a 30% pay cut.
Malawana began: ‘Five weeks ago the government could have asked any junior doctor and they would have told him that the proposed changes are unsafe. But the government has reached for a button, the button says imposition.‘That was wrong. Never has a profession organised so quickly. Thousands came out on demonstrations. We are united as a profession and we all stand together.
‘I’ve been contacted by consultants, GPs and SAS doctors who have come out to demonstrate in support of us.’ He added: ‘Only when employers had financial incentives to reduce hours did it work. Because of this doctors have safer hours. The government’s plans would take us backwards, doctors working extra hours for less pay. We say NO!
‘We are not asking for much. We need proper recognition of unsocial hours and premium pay. A&E doctors would be hardest hit by contract imposition and the proposed changes. We need to be paid for the hours we do and the work we do. We need safeguards to protect patients. They need to remove imposition, because that is a red rag to all doctors.
‘We didn’t ask for this fight. If the government makes a better choice than it did five weeks ago we can still resolve this. We are balloting for industrial action. We only have one NHS. We are fighting to keep doctors in this country. We are fighting for our patients. I’ve spoken to ten thousand doctors in the last three weeks. These are people who have a real passion for the NHS.
‘It’s really upsetting to see so many doctors who are worried about their career choice and what will happen. My problem is how I solve the problem of every single doctor I met over the past three weeks.’ He concluded by giving a warning. ‘Doctors will put their families and their children first. If they conclude that this means leaving the profession in the UK, we’ve lost fifteen years of training.’
The first question in a Q&A session was: ‘What’s the next step to make to change the junior doctors contract?’
Malawana replied: ‘If you are a junior doctor sign up to the BMA and ballot for industrial action. Negotiation with the government has been meaningless. We are clear we need a modern contract. Negotiations mean give and take.’
He stressed: ‘The contract we negotiate this time will have an impact way beyond the ones who negotiate or work it – it will last for years. The situation we have is untenable. The negotiated contract goes back to junior doctors to vote on. If the planned changes go through we won’t end up with a service that is safe. Thousands of doctors will not stand for this. They will take industrial action.’
Q: ‘What’s being done to avoid strike action?’
A: ‘Doctors don’t go on strike.They haven’t been on strike for 40 years. But we have to provide a solution to this problem – how do we provide an NHS for the next generation. We don’t want doctors to leave the country.’
Q: ‘I’m a consultant, what support do you have from senior colleagues, clearly we have to work together on this.’
A: ‘It’s clear when this began the Department (of Health) planned to fight GPs and consultants. They continue to conflate – the seven-day week. But that’s nothing to do with junior doctors. The government want to pick a fight with the medical profession. They thought junior doctors would roll over. The clear message we are trying to get across is this is a fight for the future of the NHS. We have to fight for the medical students. I want junior doctors and medical students to speak up. The public see the passion young doctors have. Everyone needs to write to your MP, tell them what you feel.’
Q: ‘What about the media war?’
A: ‘Intelligent argument is not the way the media works. Hunt is able to conflate – 11,000 weekend deaths, seven-day service. Junior doctors have to get out there and speak to people, because this is about patient safety. We have to show people that junior doctors leaving the NHS will be worse than a one-day strike. Get out and talk to the public – people turn out to meetings. This is going to be won by junior doctors talking to ordinary people. Get them to write to their MP, that’s what works.’
Q: ‘Does Jeremy Hunt care about the NHS, there’s the issue of privatisation?’
A: ‘I don’t care what Jeremy Hunt thinks, I care about what politicians do.’
Q: ‘If we do vote for industrial action, will that be a work-to-rule or a strike?’
A: ‘The question will be outlined in the ballot paper you get – it’s the law. This is about pressure, to get the government to step away from the brink. The purpose of the exercise is not to pull doctors out on strike, it’s to deliver a good contract for junior doctors.’
Q: ‘Are we going to strike properly; bring it to a head?’
A: ‘That’s a question I can’t answer, due to legal questions. The BMA is us, to make it a success, it’s up to us.’
There is no doubt that the majority of doctors are prepared to vote for strike action and to appeal to the trade union movement as a whole to take strike action in support of the doctors, in support of the NHS and against the imposition of contracts onto junior doctors by the government. If this is allowed to happen, contract imposition will rapidly become the norm for the NHS and all ‘emergency services’.