By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2911

Junior doctors revive their strike to mend NHS wages

The BMA union members are right to take a stand over pay
Issue 2911
Junior doctors on strike at St Thomas' Hospital in central London in February

Junior doctors on strike at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London in February (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Striking junior doctors are this week set to throw down a challenge to an incoming Labour government. They plan to walk out for five days from Thursday morning and take their action to the brink of next week’s general election. And union leaders last week warned that if politicians don’t budge, doctors could strike through the winter too.

The doctors want their pay returned to 2008 levels—that means a 35 percent pay rise. Declining salaries have driven thousands of doctors out of Britain in search of work abroad, leaving the NHS dangerously short staffed. A lack of skilled health workers is a key factor behind the more than seven million-strong waiting list for treatments. The doctors’ BMA union rightly demands that Keir Starmer moves to settle the dispute as soon as he gets into Downing Street.

The union says it knows the government won’t give the whole 35 percent rise in one go, so it is prepared to negotiate a multi-year deal. But it also insists it will settle for nothing less than this central demand. Strike leader Dr Robert Laurenson last week told The Times newspaper that the union would approach talks with Labour with a “healthy scepticism”.

He noted that previous Labour governments had implemented reforms that had been an “absolute disaster” for doctors. Laurenson added that the union is prepared to re-ballot in September. That would mean the BMA has a legal mandate to strike until March 2025. “It really depends on how the next negotiation goes,” he said. “I don’t think we can rule that out. If we need another mandate, we’ll have to get another mandate.”

In the BMA re-ballot in March, junior doctors voted by 98 percent to continue their strike. This is a powerful warning shot at Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. He is desperate to do a deal to end the strike. But he plans to make an offer well below 35 percent, hoping that “non-financial inducements” could act as a “sweetener”.

The party’s deputy leader last week sang the same tune. Pressed on Labour’s demand for an NHS workforce plan that doesn’t improve wages, Angela Rayner said, “It’s not just about pay for them (junior doctors)… It’s the amount of hours they are having to work, the rotations.”

Streeting and Rayner’s statements are warning signs to all NHS workers. Labour plans to keep health workers’ pay low. There’ll be little money for rebuilding hospitals and almost none for social care. That in turn will have a devastating effect on patient care.

Report after report into NHS failures have concluded that there are too few experienced staff, working under too much pressure with no sign of relief. The only way to deal with both the treatment backlog and the huge number of unfilled NHS vacancies is for Labour to pump money into health. It can start by diverting it away from defence and big business.

The junior doctors are right to take a hard line over pay. A victory for them would benefit all health workers and everyone who depends on the NHS.

Waits cause suffering

Some 18,638 NHS patients waited in A&E for three days over a 12-month period last year—a 60 percent increase on the previous year. Between April 2023 and March 2024, 399,262 people waited more than 24 hours across A&E departments.

An undercover reporter for Channel 4 secretly filmed himself working inside the Royal Shrewsbury hospital’s emergency department for two months. The investigation exposed “suffering and indignity faced by patients on a daily basis”. Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said, “I don’t think this is unique to this hospital by any stretch of the imagination.

It was a year-round crisis in emergency care.” The national goal of people who go to A&E being admitted, transferred or sent home within four hours is 95 percent. In England this target has not been met since July 2015. 

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