Junior Doctors: Industrial Action

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:36 pm on 5th September 2016.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Secretary of State for Health 6:36 pm, 5th September 2016

The prospect of a rolling five-day strike by junior doctors was one of the utmost gravity. The junior doctors have suspended next week’s action, which is a step I believe the whole House welcomes, but the remaining programme of industrial action stays in place. If it eventually goes ahead, it will be the first such strike by junior doctors in the entire history of the national health service.

What the current situation shows is that there has been a complete breakdown in trust between junior doctors and the Government. The morale of junior doctors could not be lower, and that is not something for the Secretary of State to dismiss. But somehow the Secretary of State continues to take no responsibility for the current state of affairs—no responsibility for repeatedly arguing that the only problem was that doctors had “not read the contract”, no responsibility for the misleading use of statistics by claiming that thousands of patients were dying because of poor weekend care.

The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Neena Modi, said:

“despite concerns raised by senior officials, Jeremy Hunt persisted in using dubious evidence about the so-called ‘weekend effect’
to impose a damaging Junior Doctor contract under the bogus guise of patient safety”.

The Secretary of State still insists that the contract is about a seven-day NHS when we know now that his own officials were telling him that the NHS had too few staff and too little money to deliver what he was talking about.

But the Secretary of State well knows that the public simply do not believe him in his attempt to demonise the junior doctors. Try as he might, he has failed to convince the public that somehow junior doctors are the “enemy within” or mere dupes of the BMA. Far from being manipulated, doctors voted emphatically against the new contract.

Everyone in this House will remember the 7/7 bombings and the No. 30 bus which exploded in Tavistock Square, a few yards from the headquarters of the British Medical Association. Everyone will remember the pictures of doctors, who had been in meetings and their offices, pouring out of the BMA building, heading for the 14 dead people and the 110 victims, without flinching or faltering, fulfilling their vocation of saving lives. These are the people that the Secretary of State seeks to vilify.

Today we know that the junior doctors—who, contrary to what the Secretary of State implied, have always made patient safety a top priority—have cancelled the action planned for next Monday, but if we are going to remove the threat of industrial action, there are questions that the Secretary of State has to answer. There are widespread reports of deficits and financial crises, so how can the NHS move to enhanced seven-day week working, even with the proposed £10 billion the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement, when there are not the resources to maintain the status quo?

I welcome the structural work going on outside the contract on issues such as work-life balance, the gender pay gap, the rota gaps, strengthening whistleblowing protections for junior doctors and, importantly, looking at the role of guardians of safe working hours, but the Secretary of State talked in his statement about confrontation: what could be more confrontational than seeking to impose a contract? Even at this late stage, I ask him to listen to the junior doctors’ leader, Dr Ellen McCourt, when she says:

“We have a simple ask of the Government: stop the imposition. If it agrees to do this, junior doctors will call off industrial action.”

The public are looking for the Secretary of State to try and meet the junior doctors: stop vilifying them, stop pretending they are the “enemy within”, and meet their reasonable demands.