Thomas Macaulay: Senior doctors’ opinions on the junior doctors’ strike

tom_maccauleyThe letters pages of British broadcasts last week were inundated with the views of doctors on the strike of their junior colleagues.

Most were united in their criticism of the misleading media coverage. Writing to The Guardian, Dr Michael Maier described the reporting as “sensational and inaccurate” with particular reproval reserved for the description of a 48 hour withdrawal of emergency care that was “actually between the hours of 8am and 5pm on 26 and 27 April.”

The “many myths surrounding the contract negotiations,” Dr Thomas Mount told the Financial Times, were led by Jeremy Hunt’s “misleading invoking of patient safety in order to drive through a political battle.”

Their fears were that the support for the junior doctors’ cause would be tested by the distorted press coverage.

Dr Bob Bury expressed more faith in the general public. “I suspect that this is just another example of a politician hoping that if you tell the same lie often enough, people will believe it,” he told The Guardian. “In which case, [Hunt] has miscalculated badly”

There was widespread agreement that the government’s plans for a seven day service were ill conceived. “Unsafe and unworkable, in its current guise” was the description given to The Independent by Dr Jonathan Barnes.

“Moving to a seven-day NHS without proportionately increasing staff levels and resources seems to be the wrong strategy,” said Dr David Etherington, Professor Suzan Lewis, and Dr Ian Roper in a joint letter to The Guardian. “The need is more doctors and more ancillary staff,” Dr David Hawker added in The Times. “That needs funds and planning.”

Connecting the junior doctors’ contract to the seven day NHS was little more than a cynical ruse, suggested Dr Tilford in The Guardian, who suspected that “as soon as the politicians defeat the doctors, any mention of a seven day service will mysteriously fade from view.”

Two retired doctors drew a parallel between the junior doctors’ strike and the 1984-85 miners’ strike. “Thatcher was successful and today we have no miners or mines,” Jill Thompson told The Guardian. “If Hunt is successful, can we look forward to no doctors, hospitals, or GP surgeries?”

Gareth Williams was less sympathetic. The BMA, he wrote to The Telegraph, “has become as militant as the miners were during the Seventies. The BMA leadership would do well to reflect on the current state of the mining industry in Britain.”

But the majority of senior doctors disagreed. The historical lack of strikes made doctors “probably the least militant workforce in the country,” argued Dr Maier, “so a strike over this issue needs to be taken seriously.”

The consequences of the strike would certainly be serious, said Dr Christoph Lees. “The disaster of the junior doctors’ strike, whichever side wins, is the long-term effect it may have on the medical workforce,” he warned The Times.

The current problems of declining numbers of foundation year applicants in England and mental health trusts struggling to fill rotas and increasingly reliant on locum doctors, he suggested, would only be exacerbated.

“The health secretary’s disregard for the consequences of his actions has been astonishing,” Dr Mount added. The increasing number of junior doctors choosing not to apply for further training in England and the growing gaps in speciality training meant “the future of the NHS could well be at stake,” he worried.

Thomas Macaulay is a newspaper journalism MA student at City University London. He previously worked in a research and development department of the NHS.