MP’S COLUMN: Doctors-Time to get round the table

Stewart Jackson MP's Westminster Life column in the Peterborough Telegraph - peterboroughtoday.co.uk
Stewart Jackson MP's Westminster Life column in the Peterborough Telegraph - peterboroughtoday.co.uk

I have some sympathy with striking junior doctors this week. After all, they’re well respected, have studied hard, are for the most part dedicated and passionate about their jobs and are probably fed up with highly paid and unaccountable NHS bureaucracy, ever increasing patient numbers and demands, financial constraints and inevitable change in what is one of the world’s biggest employers.

Who isn’t grateful for their hard work, compassion and esprits de corps? The public seem to back them too – at least those who haven’t waited weeks and months for elective treatment and travelled miles, only to have their appointments cancelled on Tuesday morning. They might be less keen to offer solidarity.

Because the strike had consequences and junior doctors most certainly were not “forced” into industrial action for the first time in 40 years. Those who stayed to work on deserve our praise and admiration.

All have been let down by the British Medical Association – the posh name for the doctors’ trades union – which has wilfully misrepresented the Government’s proposed changes to the doctors contracts and rushed headlong into strike action without going first to the arbitration service ACAS, to solve the one (out of 16) outstanding points of disagreement remaining between them and the Government. They’ve also sought to unfairly demonise the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt despite an extra £3.8 billion for the health service being announced in November’s Spending Review. He could have done what previous Health Secretaries have done – turned tail and capitulated to the doctors’ demands rather than focusing on the long term viability of our healthcare system. On one thing the BMA is spot on – the strike IS about patient safety but not in the way they have (mis)represented it: The Government has a mandate from the General Election to move to a full seven day NHS – or at least give hospital managers the chance to roster it in their hospitals, thereby bringing certainty to junior doctors and supporting consultants more – because it can no longer ignore the findings of no fewer than seven studies in the last five years pointing up increased patient mortality at weekends, findings arising from the ghastly tragedy of Mid Staffordshire and the preventable deaths at that Trust. It’s not reform for its own sake.

Quite why are you 20% more likely to die of stroke complications in a UK hospital at the weekend rather than during the week?

This dispute at heart is about extra cash for working weekends and it’s not ignoble for the BMA to admit that: All the rest is humbug, especially the crude nonsense about “…we’re striking to save the NHS”. Really? Taxpayers are now spending almost £140 billion a year on the NHS - a rise even allowing for inflation of 6.7% since 2010. If that’s wrecking the NHS, that’s a novel way of doing it!

We live in a complex, busy 24/7 world and modernisation especially in the working world affects us all. It’s surely outdated for professionals to demand specific extra salary payments for working Saturdays days and weekdays between 7pm and 10pm?

The facts are clear – doctors are being offered an 11% rise to compensate for lost weekend overtime payments (which will boost their pension pot too) and each doctor’s earnings will be protected for three years. The vast bulk of doctors will be better off and the maximum working week will fall from 91 to 72 hours.

Ultimately, we have to strike a balance between fairness to doctors, taxpayers and the patients, who don’t choose to get sick at the weekend.

I value our doctors in Peterborough and beyond and believe there is a case for better use of public funds on marrying up health and social care to prevent waste, duplication and in order to focus on frontline clinical work. But this week’s strike was unnecessary and unjustified and the imperative now is getting round the table, putting the bitterness and politics to one side and settling this dispute for patients’ sakes and for the future viability of own NHS.