The British Medical Association has announced a new wave of strikes by junior doctors in England over their contract, beginning with an unprecedented five-day walkout this month.
The latest action, agreed by the BMA council on Wednesday, is the first since its members rejected the the government’s final offer on the contract and will commence with a “full withdrawal of labour” between 12 and 16 September, with further dates to be announced.
Junior doctors , including those working in emergency departments, will walk out between 8am and 5pm on the days in question.
The BMA said it had made repeated attempts over the past two months to work constructively with the government to address the outstanding areas of concern, including the impact on those junior doctors not working full time, a majority of whom are women, and on those working the most weekends, typically in specialties where there is already a shortage of doctors.
Dr Ellen McCourt, the BMA junior doctors’ committee chair, said: “Genuine efforts to resolve the dispute through talks have been met with an unwillingness to engage and, at times, deafening silence from the secretary of state, leaving junior doctors with no choice but to take further action. This is despite a pledge from [the health secretary] Jeremy Hunt that his door is always open.
“The government has consistently said this is about creating a seven-day NHS, when junior doctors already work weekends and it’s been shown that the government has no answer to how it will staff and fund extra weekend care.
“With just weeks before the first group of doctors is moved on to the imposed contract, time is running out. This contract will be in place for many years, it will have a direct impact on patient care and whether we can attract and keep enough doctors in the NHS. It is too important to be rushed to meet a political deadline.”
She said that the junior doctors would call off industrial action if the government stopped imposition of the contract.
The industrial action will further test the NHS, already at breaking point due to increasing demand for services, staff shortages, and insufficient funding. If the other strike dates, yet to be announced, are in winter, they will cause particular strain on the health system.
At the heart of the contract dispute is Hunt’s proposal to change what constitutes “unsocial” hours for which junior doctors can claim extra pay, turning 7am to 5pm on Saturday into a normal working day as part of a Tory manifesto pledge to create a “seven-day NHS”.
There have been five previous walkouts in the dispute, all this year. The longest lasted for two consecutive days, and the first all out strike – including junior doctors working in emergency departments – was held in April. More than 100,000 operations and outpatient appointments have been cancelled so far as a result of industrial action.
In May there was said to be a compromise between the BMA and Hunt, but last month members of the doctors’ union voted against accepting it by a margin of 58% to 42%. As a result, Hunt is pushing forward with plans to impose the contract on junior doctors – those below the level of consultant – in October.
Dr Johann Malawana, the then chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, had recommended therevised terms and conditions as the best deal junior doctors could get. He resigned after the ballot results were announced, and was replaced by McCourt.
The Department of Health accused the BMA of putting confrontation before cooperation in order to score political points. It has to be said, “What is the politics at stake? Is it the politics of safeguarding the future of the NHS when in essence the service is threatened across the board? Is the doctors’ issue one of many failing attributes caused by the Government to weaken and destroy the service?”
Hunt told BBC News: “This is devastating news. Perhaps 100,000 operations will now have to be cancelled. Around a million hospital appointments will have to be postponed.”
The shadow health secretary, Diane Abbott, said: “The crisis in the NHS is deepening, with closures of hospitals and key departments across the country while nearly all waiting times are rising.
“The government is not properly funding even a five-day NHS. A seven-day NHS is simply impossible without more resources. It is not too late to change course. Jeremy Hunt should stop posturing about imposing a junior doctors’ contract, scrap it, and re-enter talks.”