Yesterday (April 21) I spoke with a group of junior doctors who have been peacefully campaigning outside the offices of the Department of Health in Whitehall, London. They were on their ninth day of their campaign to get the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, back round the negotiating table over the Junior Doctors contract dispute.
For nine days they have placed an empty chair outside the Department of Health as an invitation to Mr Hunt to sit down and re-engage in talks. Sadly, Mr Hunt’s response to this appears to have been to simply enter the Department of Health by the back door in order to avoid having to engage with these frustrated junior doctors.
But he should stop to talk to them. He might learn something. I spoke to them yesterday and got the real inside story on this long-running dispute. They told me about their professional pride, their determination to do the best for their patients, their long years spent training and their hard-won professional qualifications.
They expressed their real concerns about the contract that Mr Hunt seems determined to impose, with an unworkable rota system which will leave wards poorly staffed and the doctors too exhausted to be able to do what they should be doing – providing safe care for patients.
They told me of their worries about the future of the medical profession and for our NHS if these changes are forced through. Already applications are down for medical jobs in England. And let me stress; this situation is only happening in England. Scottish and Welsh NHS junior doctors are not affected.
Doctors currently working in England are thinking of applying for jobs elsewhere should this contract be imposed, be it Scotland, Wales or somewhere further afield. It would be a national disgrace if our Health Secretary were to preside over this brain drain of our finest clinicians and yet Mr Hunt seems content to stand by, Nero-like, whilst our NHS threatens to implode.
I worked for the NHS as a Clinical Biochemist for 33 years before I was elected to represent the people of Heywood and Middleton. I know from personal experience that NHS staff do not take strike action lightly. In my long career in the NHS I can count the number of strikes on the fingers of one hand. I have never known the BMA go on strike before.
These strikes are unprecedented and Jeremy Hunt should be thoroughly ashamed of his total failure to negotiate meaningfully with this highly trained, highly intelligent group of NHS staff.
The strikes planned for April 26/27 can be averted if Mr Hunt withdraws his threat of imposition of the new contract. The BMA have indicated many times their willingness to talk yet Mr Hunt stubbornly refuses to get back round that negotiating table.
The junior doctors asked me if I could do anything to get David Cameron to intervene but the Shadow Health team have already tried to do this to no avail. The junior doctors stressed to me that patients will still receive emergency care should the strike go ahead – this care will be provided by consultants during the two 9 hour strikes.
It is vital for patient care, for the future of our NHS and our medical professions, that this dispute is settled and I implore Mr Hunt to swallow his pride, cast off his aggressive posturing and get back round the negotiating table, unless he wants to go down in history as the Health Secretary who presided over the biggest crisis our NHS has ever seen, and from which it may not survive.