Junior doctors: 'This is a destruction of all I feel the NHS stood for'

Up to 38,000 junior doctors joined in strike by professors and activists across England as Jeremy Hunt labels action ‘very disappointing’

It was just after dawn when, huddled against the bitter cold, a group of 50 junior doctors, retired medical professors and union activists gathered outside a funeral home near Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, Greater Manchester.

Some held David Bowie-inspired placards labelling Jeremy Hunt “The Man Who Sold the World” and declaring “All The Young Dudes were Rebel Rebel-ing”, while one doctor brought a papier mâché vulture that later withered in the rain.

Dr Stefano Prisco Penna, 26, had gone straight to the picket line after finishing a nine-hour night shift in A&E. “I’m pretty knackered,” he said, passing round Jaffa Cakes and Jelly Babies. “We work very hard; we’ve been put under a lot of pressure and stress. We do a lot for our patients, and for the government to say, ‘We don’t want to pay you for that effort’ is a massive kick in the teeth.”

Across England, as many as 38,000 members of the British Medical Association (BMA) walked out at 8am in the first strike by junior doctors in 40 years. The majority of those manning the 150 picket lines had not been born the last time doctors took industrial action, in 1975.

Clutching a placard for the first time since his youth, Raymond Tallis, 69, the former professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, said he had been “radicalised by the brutal assault on the NHS”. “I’ve not marched since I was a student, but I was radicalised as a result of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act – it’s a direct assault on the principles of the NHS,” he said.

“What’s now happening is what Chomsky said: the government want to defund, discredit, denigrate, devolve and denationalise. That’s the plan. I was a doctor for 37 years – this is a destruction of all I feel the NHS stood for.”

Barely two hours into the strike, the first hospital emergency was declared. Doctors outside Sandwell hospital in West Bromwich were ordered to return to their wards to help alleviate a “surge in activity”.

Some did return to the hospital, but others held out, accusing the hospital of using bullying tactics and pointing out that the letter sent to striking doctors by Dr Roger Stedman, the medical director of Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals, was dated Monday.

“My first reaction was to cry when they called us back in,” said Dr Anne De Bray, who has worked at the hospital for a year. “It’s been well planned. They said they would call us individually if they needed us to come back into work. Instead they’ve emailed us a letter that was dated Monday, 15 minutes before our picket line was due to start.”

At lunchtime, by which point 16,000 junior doctors were away from their wards and 3,300 operations had been cancelled, Jeremy Hunt spoke on the radio. The strike action was very disappointing, the health secretary told BBC Radio 4’s World at One. He urged junior doctors to get back to the negotiating table instead of continuing with “these very unnecessary strikes”.

The BMA, meanwhile, insisted that it was open to negotiation to resolve the dispute that began four months ago. The government has offered an 11% rise in basic pay for junior medics, but at a price: other elements of the pay package are to be curbed. The number of hours during the working week that are classed as unsociable – and therefore incur an extra payment – is to be cut by 25%.

For some, that is a cut too far. Dr Helen Rielly, 36, a paediatric registrar, went home in tears on Monday following an exhausting 14-hour shift that left her on the brink of quitting the NHS she loves. “I didn’t see my family, my young daughter; it was incredibly stressful at work; high-intensity. I didn’t have any rest periods, any food or drink, and I was very thirsty at the end of my shift and couldn’t speak very well when I was handing over to my colleagues,” she said, shivering in the cold outside Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport.

“I just felt so demoralised, and I went home in tears. I realised that I couldn’t do any more of those shifts for less pay. To do one every now and again is really hard work, but to do them the majority of the time – which is what the government is trying to do – would be so unsafe and unmanageable that I’d have to seriously think about what I would do with my work.”

In Manchester, Dr Marianne Hilton, 36, said the NHS was at breaking point and that she no longer felt confident in her ability to uphold the Hippocratic oath, which she took when she qualified in 2008. “If the contract is imposed, then doctors will find it difficult to work safely and uphold their oath to do no harm,” she said. “I’m exhausted, and you don’t have the safeguards in place and you’re constantly bombarded with negativity by some of the media. It has become too much.”

As the afternoon drew on, many of the picket lines disbanded as doctors prepared for emergency care shifts on Tuesday night. At Sandwell hospital, executives said it was no longer necessary for medics to return to work. Hospital executives fiercely denied that it had played political games by declaring an urgent incident, insisting that it was “not party to the national dispute in any way”.

With two larger walkouts planned in the next four weeks, Hunt’s officials and the BMA are expected to get round the table again later this week to try to settle the dispute. “We deeply regret the level of disruption caused, but this is a fight for the long-term safety of patients and junior doctors’ working lives,” said Dr Johann Malawana, chair of the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee.


Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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