Junior doctors blame health secretary for triggering strikes across England

Steve Barclay accused of ‘wasting months’ by failing to meet unions and being dismissive of their demands for improved pay

Junior doctors’ leaders have blamed Steve Barclay for triggering their three-day strike this week by ignoring their concerns and being “dismissive” of their demands for improved pay.

Hospitals in England functioned effectively on Monday, the first day of the stoppage, with consultants – senior doctors – covering work usually done by junior colleagues. Many thousands of trainee medics refused to work, forcing hospitals to cancel outpatient appointments and operations.

The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA), one of the two medical trade unions whose members are striking until Thursday, launched a strongly worded attack on the health secretary’s handling of the dispute, which has been increasingly likely since June last year.

Dr Naru Narayanan, its president, said that successive governments had been guilty of “serial neglect” of junior doctors, despite the high dropout rate among them early in their careers, which has been linked to high levels of burnout and stress caused by working on the NHS frontline.

“The health secretary has wasted months. While this strike was brewing; instead of meeting with junior doctors’ unions to resolve the issues, he and the government have chosen to ignore them.

“This dismissive stance to very real grievances has driven the massive majorities of junior doctors voting to strike,” said Narayanan.

He added: “It’s clear that the only people responsible for this week’s strikes are ministers who over many years have believed they could get away with paying junior doctors less than they are worth, despite the worsening lack of doctors.

“Covid and the continued cap on increases at 2%, despite huge inflation, has finally pushed junior doctors over the edge.

“The roots of this strike lie in years of serial neglect of junior doctors by successive governments which have imposed a significant drop in real-terms incomes through below-inflation increases.”

Doctors joined picket lines across England on Monday and will do so again on Tuesday and Wednesday. The stoppage ends at 7am on Thursday.

The British Medical Association (BMA), the other union involved, also voiced its anger with Barclay. Both unions are seeking “full pay restoration” for junior – or trainee – doctors, to their 2008-09 levels to make up for what they say is a 26% decline in the real-terms value of their salaries. As of the beginning of 2023, that means an uplift of around 35%.

The BMA urged him to drop the pre-conditions he is insisting the BMA and HCSA accept before detailed pay negotiations can begin.

“These include the government wanting to keep discussions to future pay and limiting talks over 15 years of pay erosion to just a one-off bonus payment,” the union said.

Dr Rob Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi, the co-chairs of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, said: “The fact that strike action is happening is 100% the fault of Steve Barclay, who shows no real commitment to resolving this dispute. An 11th-hour suggestion of talks is a facade.

“He is kicking the can down the road, delaying any meaningful discussion and failing to show any credible evidence of starting an honest conversation to end the dispute.”

On Monday many consultants tweeted their support for their junior colleagues’ walkout.

“Night shift tonight in support of our fantastic junior doctors. They are the future and we need to pay them properly and look after them if we want them to stay in the NHS,” tweeted Dr Jim Down, an intensive care doctor.

“As consultants we told them they are supported 100%. We’ve produced a rota staffed by consultants to keep our service and patients safe. We had more volunteers than slots. We are all with you,” tweeted Dr Aaron Bell, a paediatric cardiologist in London.

Dr Clare Collins tweeted: “I hope our trainees know that when I say we’ve got their backs – I mean, we’ve got their backs. Consultants acting down for the next 3 days solid. Rotas covered. Do what you need to.”

Commenting on the strike, Sir David Nicholson, the ex-head of the NHS, who now chairs two health trusts in the West Midlands, tweeted: “I cannot believe that any competent government would allow this to happen.”

Barclay said it was “incredibly disappointing the British Medical Association (BMA) has declined my offer to enter formal pay negotiations on the condition strikes are paused”.

“I hugely value the hard work of junior doctors and urge unions to come to the negotiating table and cancel strikes which risk patient safety and impact efforts to tackle the backlog. I want to find a fair settlement which recognises the crucial role of junior doctors and the wider economic pressures facing the UK,” he added.

• This article was amended on 14 March 2023 to clarify the basis for what the junior doctors are seeking, and to correct the spelling of Dr Clare Collins’ first name.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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