Doctors working for England’s public service began striking on Tuesday over pay and working conditions. It is described as the most disruptive strike in the country’s history.
The four-day strike began at 07:00 (0600 GMT) after months of strikes by other civil servants and private sector staff where inflation levels are causing the UK’s worst cost of living crisis in a generation.
The strike by so-called junior doctors – doctors who are not yet senior specialists but already have years of experience – comes after a three-day strike last month and several strikes by nurses.
It threatens to be the biggest strike yet and hundreds of thousands of appointments have already been cancelled.
The doctors demand a salary increase of 35%. They say it is necessary after more than a decade of salary reductions.
They also argue backlogs due to the pandemic, coupled with staffing shortages, have increased the workload and are putting patients at risk.
“We had a huge salary reduction and we have to try to fill all kinds of gaps because people are leaving the industry,” said junior doctor Katrina Forsyth after a night shift at St. Thomas Hospital in London said. She added that she sometimes cries after shifts. “It is becoming more and more unsafe for patients.”
The government claims the British Medical Association’s (BMA) request is unaffordable and ministers are trying to deal with wage demands right across the public service amid high inflation and a stagnant growth rate.
The consumer price index rose to 10.4% in February – more than five times the target set by the Bank of England and close to the peak in the last 40 years.
“I had hoped that we would be able to formally negotiate with the BMA last month about salaries, but demands for a 35% increase are unreasonable,” said Health Minister Steve Barclay. “If the BMA is willing to move significantly away from its position and cancel the strike, we can continue confidential discussions and find a way forward – just as we have done with other unions.”
Last month, Barclay presented an agreement for a 5% increase to unions representing various healthcare workers, including nurses. Union members are currently deciding whether they want to accept it.
However, the deal does not cover junior doctors who represent around half of all NHS doctors, according to official figures.
The current strike will put “enormous pressure” on the service, said Stephen Powis, medical director at NHS England. “This is a comprehensive strike that will cause large-scale disruption,” he told BBC Radio.
The strike affects the NHS in England, but not in the UK’s other regions.
Up to 250,000 appointments are likely to have to be postponed, according to the NHS Confederation, which represents the system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Family doctors’ practices have also been closed for a week, reports British media. General practitioners are involved to help patients.
Powis says the NHS is “working very hard” to make sure emergency services are adequately staffed, but the situation appears to be uncertain and “routine care will be affected”.
Phil Sutcliffe (75) from south London is one of the patients affected by this. His cancer follow-up visit has been postponed until next month. However, he supports the strike organized by the BMA.
“These doctors do a fantastic job for a very modest salary. The government must come to the negotiating table and start talking,” he said.
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