Hospital doctors in England carried out the largest walkout in the history of the UK’s publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) on Thursday, sparking fears about the well-being of patients.
The five-day strike, driven by concerns over pay and staff retention, adds to the eight months of ongoing industrial action across the NHS, which is already grappling with a significant backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Junior doctor Arjan Sing, 27, expressed the gravity of the situation, stating, “The NHS has been running on goodwill, and now this is the last chance to change that.” Sing made his remarks while standing on a picket line outside London’s University College Hospital. He also revealed that many of his colleagues were considering leaving for countries that prioritize the welfare of doctors.
Sing added, “Doctors have realized they work in a global market; they’re not restricted to this country.”
Nurses, ambulance staff, and other medical professionals have joined the picket lines in recent months, further burdening the healthcare system and creating additional challenges for patient appointments.
The strike action, led by junior doctors below the consultant level, will continue until 7:00 am (0600 GMT) on Tuesday.
This development occurs against the backdrop of widespread strikes across various sectors in the past year, ranging from train drivers to lawyers, as the UK faces a severe cost-of-living crisis.
Senior hospital doctors, referred to as consultants, in England are also scheduled to begin a 48-hour strike on July 20, followed by radiographers on July 25.
The dispute between junior doctors and the government has become increasingly acrimonious. Junior doctors are demanding the restoration of their pay levels from 2008-2009, a move that the government argues would result in an average pay increase of approximately 35 percent.
The British Medical Association’s Junior Doctors Committee claims that doctors have experienced a real-terms pay cut of 26 percent over the past 15 years, as their salaries have failed to keep pace with soaring inflation.
The government contends that backdating their pay to account for inflation since 2008 would be financially burdensome and instead has offered an additional five percent increase as part of its efforts to combat inflation.
BMA leaders Robert Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi expressed their views on the matter, stating, “Today marks the start of the longest single walkout by doctors in the NHS’s history, but this is still not a record that needs to go into the history books.”
They added, “We can call this strike off today if the UK government will simply follow the example of the government in Scotland and drop their nonsensical precondition of not talking whilst strikes are announced and produce an offer which is credible to the doctors they are speaking with.”
Previous strikes in June and April resulted in significant disruptions, with hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments and operations being rescheduled.
Laurenson and Trivedi criticized the UK government’s inflexible approach, describing it as perplexing, frustrating, and ultimately detrimental to everyone who desires a reduction in waiting lists and an increase in NHS staffing numbers.
According to the BMA, around seven million people were waiting for treatment in April, a record high, with nearly three million individuals waiting for over 18 months.