Hospitals in England are facing major disruption today as tens of thousands of junior doctors stage a 24-hour walkout as part of their continuing contract dispute with the Government.
The first of three planned strikes involving 38,000 doctors – the first such action in 40 years - began this morning at 8am, and will see trainees in England providing emergency care-only cover, similar to a Christmas Day service, during the 24-hour action.
The strike went ahead despite a last-minute plea from Prime Minister David Cameron for doctors to abort the action, warning it would cause "real difficulties for patients and potentially worse".
Although the NHS has reportedly prioritised cancer care to minimise the risk to patients needing vital surgery and treatment, more than 4,000 routine treatments including knee and hip operations have been postponed, and hundreds more appointments, check-ups and tests have been cancelled. Hospital consultants, GPs, nurses and midwives remain at work.
A West Midlands hospital ordered doctors to go back to work after a reported surge in patients, shortly after the strike got under way earlier this morning, with managers at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust saying they were struggling to discharge patients.
But the British Medical Association (BMA) refused to agree to the request, arguing that the situation didn’t qualify as a major incident. Junior doctors working for Sandwell Hospital questioned why the situation was labelled an emergency and as at midday today, picket lines remained where doctors, in line with advice from the BMA, continued to defy their bosses amid chants of “No ifs, no buts, no junior doctor cuts.”
Junior doctors are taking the action over the Government’s failure to address their concerns about weekend pay, contractual safeguards to protect them from being over worked, and proper recognition for those working long, intense and unsocial hours. Ministers argue that the current arrangements are outdated and that changes are needed to improve standards of weekend care.
The unprecedented walkout comes after talks between the union and the Government failed to reach agreement on the long-running contract row. Conciliation talks paused last week with both sides admitting that discussions had been “constructive.” But they were not enough to call off today’s planned action which sends a clear message to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt about what junior doctors think of the proposed plans to impose new contracts.
While we understand that trust between doctors and the Government has been severely damaged and that junior doctors feel that they have been left with no other option than to strike, patient safety remains paramount and it is obviously crucial that those requiring urgent surgery and emergency care are not subjected to any undue risk as a result of this action.
Having said that, the most significant threat to patient care is the Government’s continued insistence on removing safeguards which prevent junior doctors from being forced to work excessively long hours, leaving patients facing the dangerous prospect of being treated by exhausted doctors.
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