On 28 October, around 250 Sheffield students travelled up to Leeds to join a 2,000-strong protest against the new junior doctors’ contracts. This protest mirrors protests and marches taking place up and down the country (including a march of 20,000 in London) in the past two months and support has been building to oppose contracts which are unsafe for patients and unfair to doctors.
The “non-negotiable” terms of the new contract are an extension of the existing standard working time of junior doctors from 60 to 90 hours per week, changing ‘social hours’ to 7am-10pm Monday to Saturday. This means that Junior Doctors will be paid the same for working 9am on a Monday morning as they will for working 9pm on a Saturday.
The new contracts put an end to banding payments, which have built-in safeguards to prevent excessive hours and to ensure sufficient breaks. This means there will be no way of preventing unsafe hours from being worked or to guarantee junior doctors are paid when shifts overrun.
Changes to pay progression will impact heavily on part-time workers and will put junior doctors off undertaking specialist training, in addition to disadvantaging those wishing to take maternity leave.
These changes will affect the quality of life for those giving care, overall exacerbating the health inequalities already rife within the UK. Get the 83a in Sheffield from Fulwood to Ecclesfield and the life expectancy of the people around you drops by a year for every three minutes you travel. GPs who are tired and demoralised will not be able to treat their patients to the high standards NHS patients deserve.
The British Medical Association (BMA) balloted its junior members in England for industrial action, with an almost unbelievable 98% voting in favour. If strike action takes place, the BMA require the following concrete assurances before re-entering into the negotiations with NHS employers:
• Proper recognition of unsocial hours as premium time
• No disadvantage for those working unsocial hours compared to the current system
• No disadvantage for those working less than full time and taking parental leave compared to the current system pay for all work done.
• Proper hours safeguards protecting patients and their doctors
Industrial action for junior doctors poses some serious questions to medical students: do they leave their placements to support their colleagues and defend their future careers?
The General Medical Council say that a medical student is “unfit to practice” if their attendance is less than 80 per cent, so medical schools are currently unable to explicitly support their students in strike action. It will come down to the individual’s decision if they want to join the junior doctors on the picket line.
If medical students do attend placement on the days of the strike, they risk the pressure of doing more procedures unsupervised, on understaffed wards, putting themselves and patients at risk. If they don’t, they risk penalisation for their absence. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they now need as much support as possible from their peers and lecturers.
How does this fit into the NHS as a whole? Since Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt refuses to back down on the most contentious issues of the Junior Doctors contract, health workers and patients must unite to defend their NHS. If the BMA (the union Aneurin Bevan had to pay off in order to found the welfare state) isn’t safe, then nobody is.