On 26th April 2016 something unprecedented happened – junior doctors in England went on all-out strike, the first time such action had been taken in the history of the NHS.
The sequence of events leading up to that strike began in late 2012, when the government initiated talks with the British Medical Association over a new contract. In October 2014 talks broke down, and a later contract offer to junior doctors in August 2015 was rejected. In a subsequent BMA ballot 98% of members voted in favour of all-out strike action.
The threat of action was enough to kick-start the negotiation process; a strike planned for 1st December was called off, but conciliation talks through December and January failed. This resulted in the first of four instances of industrial action – a 24-hour walkout – on 12th January 2016. Following a second strike in February the government controversially announced their intention to impose the new contract on junior doctors.
In broad strokes, the government’s argument was that the existing contract arrangements were outdated and that only by introducing change could standards of weekend care be improved. The BMA’s primary concerns, on the other hand, were adequate pay for doctors working weekends, and the need for safeguards to prevent doctors being overworked, which would directly threaten patient safety.
At the time of the initial strike action in January 2016, BMA chairman Dr Mark Porter told the BBC: “We sincerely regret the disruption that industrial action will cause, but junior doctors have been left with no option. It is because the government’s proposals would be bad for patient care, as well as junior doctors in the long term, that we are taking this stand.”
A mainstay of the government’s argument has been that the contract changes are needed in order to deliver a safer, 7-day NHS. However, despite political rhetoric suggesting otherwise, the NHS already operates a 7-day service and weekends are no more dangerous for patients than weekdays; one BMJ study found no significant increase in the risk of dying in hospital on a Wednesday, compared with Saturday or Sunday.
Opinion polls throughout the action have showed public support in favour of the junior doctors, with the lion’s share of blame for the strikes placed on the government; an Ipsos MORI poll conducted for the BBC at the time of April’s all-out strike showed 57% of respondents supported the doctors, while 54% said the government was more at fault.
Following intervention by leaders at the medical royal colleges, talks were reopened on 9th May, and after eight days of negotiation at ACAS a deal was agreed on 18th May; the deal will be put to junior doctors in a ballot next month. While the BMA will recommend accepting the deal, it could still be rejected – so further strike action cannot be ruled out – but the fact that the stalemate has been broken is undoubtedly a huge step forward.
What’s your opinion of the all-out junior doctors strike? Was it a necessary line-in-the-sand to protect patients in the long term or a step too far? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below or hop over to our Facebook page.