Striking doctors in England at loggerheads with hospitals over calls to return to work

Doctors of National Health Service (NHS) in England grapples with the longest-planned striking in its history, as junior doctors continue their ninth organized walkout in just over a year. The ongoing strike, which began on Wednesday and is set to last six days, exacerbates the bitter pay dispute between doctors and the government.

Junior doctors, the backbone of hospital and clinic care, are at odds with hospitals over requests for some to leave the picket line during one of the busiest times of the year. The strike has led to an impasse, with hospitals making 20 requests for junior doctors to return to work on the first day, citing patient safety concerns. However, none of these requests have been granted.

The British Medical Association (BMA), representing the majority of the 75,000 striking doctors, had agreed with NHS managers on a system for derogations, allowing junior doctors to return in case of safety concerns about emergency care. Hospitals were expected to demonstrate that they had exhausted all other staffing options before recalling doctors.

In response to hospitals’ refusal to provide necessary data, the BMA Chairman, Professor Philip Banfield, accused them of fundamentally undermining the derogation process. However, the NHS Confederation defended the hospitals, stating that the time-consuming form-filling could compromise patient safety.

During the strike, senior doctors (consultants) are stepping in to provide some essential care. Still, their numbers are insufficient to fill the gap, leading NHS managers to announce the postponement of tens of thousands of appointments and operations.

The ongoing strike is part of a year-long series of rolling strikes across the health sector in the UK, with staff seeking pay increases to offset the rising cost of living. The BMA highlights that newly qualified doctors earn £15.53 per hour, emphasizing that salaries rise rapidly after the first year. Despite a 2023 pay raise of 8.8% offered by the government, the union argues that it is insufficient, as doctors’ pay has reportedly been cut by over a quarter since 2008.

Negotiations between the government and junior doctors broke down late last year, leading to the current standoff. The government insists on further talks only if the strike is called off, while the BMA demands a “credible” pay offer before entering negotiations.

Junior doctors are expected to remain off the job until 7 a.m. on Tuesday, heightening concerns about the strain on the already-stressed NHS during a critical period.

Sumann Senguptaa

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