Socialist Worker

Junior doctors take on Tory lies over NHS

As the Tories and their media mates go on the offensive against them, angry junior doctors spoke to Tomáš Tengely-Evans about the reality of the job—and why they’re fighting back

Issue No. 2479

Junior doctors protesting in London against the new contracts last month

Junior doctors protesting in London against the new contracts last month (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The Tories’ mouthpieces in the right wing media have begun a campaign against junior doctors.

The British Medical Association (BMA) is balloting for strikes over an attack on their contracts (see below). The Sun newspaper claimed the idea that junior doctors are overworked is a “myth”.

Niki, a junior doctor working in east London, spoke to Socialist Worker about the reality of life in the job. “You already work over your contracted hours because you care for your patients,” she said.

Junior doctor Yannis agreed. “We’ll be in work two to three hours after we’ve ‘finished’,” he explained.

“In one hospital where I used to work, if you were down to work until 6pm you’d still be there between 7pm and 9.30pm. Sometimes it was until 10.30pm.”

Cuts and attacks make it harder for health workers to give the care they want to. Nicki said government policies had led to “fewer and more demoralised staff”.

Health workers work longer hours because they try to give patients rounded care.

Yannis described the importance of having enough time and resources. “You’re making life and death decisions,” he said.

“You have to weigh up the pros and cons of hypotheses. But you also have to explain those decisions to patients and relatives.”

Junior doctors work between 80 and 90 hours a week. Niki said, “There’s no scheduled breaks. Normally you have a cup of tea when meeting consultants or have lunch during training.”

When Yannis spoke to Socialist Worker he had just finished a weekend of being on call.


“There’s a myth of the consultant on a golf course, taking a phone call and then going back to their game,” he said. 

“But I was in work from 9am till 9pm taking calls from across the hospital. You’re then taking calls throughout the night and you’re back again on Sunday.”

It was fears around patient safety that led to limits on hours in the first place. Now the Tories want to tear them up.

In 1990 there was no limit on the number of hours junior doctors could work. But the threat of industrial action forced the Tories to set up a working group that came up with the current contract.

Yannis said, “The new contracts would take us back to the 1990s.”

The junior doctors are fighting a 40 percent pay cut—but it’s also about more than that.

Hunt’s plans will set a precedent for more attacks throughout the health service, put patient safety at risk and encourage privatisation.

This is a fight for the NHS.

A political attack to privatise the health service

The Tories claim new junior doctors’ contracts will improve patient care. Jeremy Hunt talks of bringing in “seven-day working” in the NHS.

But most doctors, nurses and other health workers already work around the clock, including nights and weekends. 

It isn’t about short term savings. The junior doctors’ wage bill is a relatively small part of the NHS budget. It is a politically-inspired attack.

The Tories want to smash junior doctors’ pay and conditions before moving onto other NHS workers. They want to soften the NHS up for privatisation.

Charlotte Monro, a health worker in east London, told Socialist Worker, “The Tories want to run the NHS on the cheap. This attack hasn’t happened to the rest of us yet, but we know it’s round the corner.”

The junior doctors’ revolt has rocked the Tories.

That’s why the Department of Health has attacked the BMA as “blinkered” and said strikes would “put patients at risk”.

In truth it is government cuts and privatisation that hurt patients.

The NHS winter crisis has already begun as hospitals creak under the burden of a projected £2 billion deficit.

Junior doctors aren’t balloting in Scotland and Wales, because the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour governments aren’t imposing the new contracts. 

Yet the SNP still wants private sector involvement. And Welsh Labour is pushing through a hospital “rationalisation” programme.

Many health workers support the junior doctors because they want to stop the Tory offensive.

Unison union leader Dave Prentis said the union would fight attacks on unsocial hours’ pay in the NHS. But he has done next to nothing to support the junior doctors.

Workers can win. Instead of being the Tories’ soft target, junior doctors are leading the way—now others have to get behind them.

The harmful impact of the 'Hunt effect'

Jeremy Hunt claims that 11,000 more patients die a year because of the “weekend effect”—when fewer doctors are on wards to monitor patients.

Hunt and the Daily Mail newspaper use a British Medical Journal (BMJ) article by Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, to back this up.

Yet Keogh’s paper says it would be “rash and misleading” to conclude that the 11,000 deaths could be prevented.

Patients admitted during the weekend are more likely to be emergency cases with a higher risk of death.

The lack of support staff and access to special areas—such as X-rays—also has an impact.

But Hunt’s attack would make the NHS chronic staffing crisis worse by pushing doctors out of the health service.

Hunt’s claims have put people off seeking treatment at weekends—something doctors call the “Hunt effect”.

A survey found 40 patients who delayed treatment because they feared getting worse care at weekends. The delay meant 80 percent of them had a “worse outcome”.

Two of them died, possibly also as a result of the delay.

Tory austerity and Hunt’s propaganda are harming patients.

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