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"If things are going to carry on the way they are, they're going to break the NHS," said one pediatrician. (Photo: Reuters)

In Name of Patient Safety and Future of National Healthcare, UK Doctors Strike

"Overworked and tired doctors make mistakes, so getting these arrangements wrong is tantamount to gambling with patients' lives," says one striker

Deirdre Fulton

Tens of thousands of junior doctors across the United Kingdom joined in strikes and pickets on Tuesday, protesting what they describe as "a fundamental breakdown in trust...for which the government is directly responsible."

The strike stems from a dispute over pay and working conditions, weekend shifts in particular. The junior doctors—a term that covers medical professionals with as much as a decade of experience—say the government is trying to impose a new contract that leaves them overworked and their patients vulnerable. 

The Independent explains: "The new contract would see a cut to out-of-hours pay, in return for an 11 percent basic pay increase. Junior doctors fear they will end up working more hours, for less, and are also concerned the contract will water down safeguards that prevent them working excessive hours."

What's more, junior doctor Hugo Farne wrote at the New Statesman:

Under the new proposals, doctors working an 11 hour shift will get just one 30 minute break. Worse, there are no requirements for rest periods for those who provide an on call service overnight, when they could be called in frequently. These doctors could be asked to work both the day before and the day after one of these “non resident” night shifts. Effectively we could be working 72 hours continuously. As this arrangement costs less and requires fewer rest provisions (less time away from work) than having resident staff, hospitals will have a powerful incentive to make such 72 hour shifts commonplace. Overworked and tired doctors make mistakes, so getting these arrangements wrong is tantamount to gambling with patients’ lives.

New polling has shown that two-thirds of the general public supports junior doctors walking out from all but emergency care, in what has been called the UK's "most significant strike by medical staff in 40 years."

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn also expressed support for the doctors, writing in a statement: "Everybody in Britain recognizes and is grateful for the hard work and long hours put in by junior doctors. Their treatment by this government has been nothing short of appalling, leading to the strike action in our [National Health Service] today....It is time for this government to apologize to junior doctors and negotiate a fair deal that gets our NHS working again."

Meanwhile, a full 98 percent of the British Medical Association backed the walkout. The World Medical Association also supports the strike, with its president, Sir Michael Marmot, stating, "In this case it is clear that patient care would suffer in the long term if the government’s proposals to change the working hours of junior doctors goes ahead."

That "near-unanimous show of support tells us that these pillars of the National Health Service are in a state of revolt, that their morale is catastrophically poor, and that they are extremely determined," Guardian columnist Owen Jones said in an op-ed on Tuesday.

Indeed, they are determined not just to negotiate fair contracts, but to save the NHS itself—from austerity-driven cuts and commercialization, Jones argued.

"[A]sk a striking junior doctor why they’re taking this action, and you won’t simply hear an eloquent spiel about their contracts," he wrote. "It’s the very future of the NHS—which they have committed their lives to—which they fear is at stake. There are the government’s policies of marketization and fragmentation—yes, accelerating what previous administrations did—stripping the 'national' from NHS. The NHS has suffered the longest squeeze in its funding since it was established after the war. Cuts to social care are piling pressure on an already buckling NHS."

A pediatrician identified as Tom, striking outside Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London, echoed those fears to the New Statesman. "The main factor here is safety, and the longevity of the NHS," he said. "If things are going to carry on the way they are, they're going to break the NHS."

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