Commentary by Louis VIS
For the fourth time this year, junior doctors in England have taken to the streets in protest over a new contract being imposed by Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative Health Secretary. Whilst such industrial action might be expected in countries like Belgium or France, it is much less common in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, whilst the previous strikes only involved junior doctors walking out of routine care, the most recent strike saw them walk out of both routine and emergency care (ie: Accident and Emergency, urgent maternity services and intensive care) – a first in the history of the National Health Service (NHS). The current strike is planned to last a total of 18 hours over two days, from 8am to 5pm on the 25th and 26th April 2016.
Whilst some may argue that junior doctors are putting patients’ lives at risk, this article will explain why today’s Conservative government should be blamed for the current situations. The UK is one of several developed countries suffering from an ageing population. This means that a shrinking workforce will have to support a growing number of pensioners, many of whom will require care and assistance. As if this phenomenon alone was not enough, the UK is also facing a huge rise in obesity levels thus putting the NHS under even more pressure. As we have seen in Sarah’s article this week, everyone agrees that for the NHS to survive, major reforms are needed. This is exactly what Jeremy Hunt has tried, but failed to do. Unfortunately, his reforms completely miss the point. Mr. Hunt seems to believe that excess demand can be overcome if doctors work long hours for less money. Thus the idea of increasing basis pay by an average of 13.5% may seem appealing but the price junior doctors would have to pay for this is tremendous. Whilst signing this new contract would offer a higher basic pay to doctors, it would force them to be paid less for working nights and weekends. Furthermore, under the new contract, any hours between 7am-9pm Monday to Friday and 7am-5pm on Saturday would be considered ‘normal’. Would you agree to such changes in your contract?
Junior doctors rightly argue that they already work around the clock to meet the growing demands of an aging population, yet under this new contract they would be paid less for working harder. It therefore does not come as a surprise to learn that many medical students from UK universities end up moving to other countries within the EU, to the USA or even Australia in the hope of a better professional career. Thus at a time of staff shortage, the last thing the government should be doing is pushing medical students to find better foreign alternatives. The priority of the British government should be to encourage domestic doctors to remain in the UK as well as increasing the number of foreign skilled medical professionals allowed to work in the UK or let foreign medical students stay after graduation to work in the NHS. Unfortunately, due to populist propaganda and paranoia, the government has done the exact opposite. As The Economist explains, ‘applying for a student visa has grown slower and costlier. Working part-time to pay fees is harder. And foreign students no longer have the right to stay and work for two years after graduation. Britain’s universities are losing market share: their foreign enrolments are flat even as their main rivals’ are growing strongly’. Thus rather than kicking skilled foreign graduates out of the country after graduation, the government should use those newly qualified doctors to its advantage by filling shortages in the NHS. Unfortunately unless something is done soon, the situation will get worse before it gets better, that’s if it ever does.