Peter Bailey: Striking for a duck island

A few days ago I was asked by a local radio station to give an opinion about the strike action being planned by the medical profession over pensions.  I told them that in view of the fact that I was already retired and drawing my pension, I was perhaps hors de combat and should leave it those still in post to comment.

However, as each day has gone by, everything I see in the press or on television, or hear on the radio has contributed to my belief that the profession is misguided. When I heard the BMA’s council chairman Hamish Meldrum on the Today programme lamely trying to defend the strike, and I listened to my colleagues, friends, and family expressing their disbelief, I felt a rise in my bile and picked up my pen.

What are our leaders thinking about? Are they completely detached from reality? Do they not see that the profession is squandering its political capital and eroding the trust of the people they serve with this ill-judged and pointless “industrial action.” Doctors are not making widgets, they are looking after sick people. The only reason they should ever be on strike is in defence of their patients. Only when the imperatives of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and distributive justice are threatened, as I believe they are in the Health and Social Care Act, should doctors agitate and protest.

Where was the ballot for strike action over the Health and Social Care Bill—which has now become an Act? Now that would have been something to man the barricades for. The legislation is incoherent and disruptive and does nothing to address the real problems of rising demand and expensive complexity in medicine. It undermines the national in the national health service and leaves it open to influence and control from the private sector through the emerging commissioning support organisations as primary care trusts wither and die away. That would have been a cause for which I would have willingly folded up my newspaper, left my biscuit un-dunked, and stood on the picket lines to support my still-working colleagues.

Instead, the profession is being asked to strike over something that the public will not understand. Once Mrs Merton had asked Debbie McGee “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” nothing could counter the gold-digging implication that the question left in the mind. Similarly, when James Naughtie asked Hamish Meldrum about the million pounds in the average doctor’s pension pot at retirement, nothing could undo the impression of doctors feathering their nests while the rest of Britain struggles with recession and unemployment. The strike will gain as much public sympathy as an MP’s duck island.

This is absolutely not the time for a struggle with the government over pensions. I believe the profession has once again been duped. We have been drawn like a drunk in a bar brawl into a fight in which we can only fail, and when we are mocked and beaten we will have drawn the disdain and disgust of the public at the spectacle of our loss of dignity and judgement.

We have seen that the coalition government rouses itself to action over pasty and caravan taxes, but trample over its manifesto promises (remember “No top-down reorganisation of the NHS”?)  Out of touch with public opinion and need, the government pours resources into the banking sector while our social infrastructure withers. Doctors are going the same way—insulated by privilege and position, we lurch into a senseless and futile strike while the fundamental structures of the NHS crumble under pressure.

We are poorly led. There is not even a Pyrrhric victory in sight, only ignominy and defeat. What a waste.

Peter Bailey is a retired general practitioner, Cambridge