Junior doctors have escalated their dispute, with the British Medical Association yesterday (February 23) announcing an additional three 48-hour strikes as their battle against health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s imposed contracts continues.
The dates for the latest planned strikes will be March 9, April 6 and April 26, all set to begin at 8am. While the walkouts will not affect emergency care, they will likely cause disruption among scheduled operations.
The planned strikes follow two 24-hour strikes, which led to an estimated 3,000 operations being cancelled.
In addition to the three upcoming strikes, the BMA is also set to launch a judicial review into the government’s decision to forcibly impose contracts that the junior doctors had not agreed to.
The review is being launched because the health secretary Hunt had apparently failed to conduct an equality impact assessment (EIA) before forcing the contracts on junior doctors.
“This is yet another example of the incompetence which the government has demonstrated throughout its handling of the dispute,” said BMA junior doctors committee chair Johann Malawana.
“Imposing this contract will seriously undermine the ability of the NHS to recruit and retain junior doctors in areas of medicine with the most unsocial areas, where there are already staffing shortages,” he added.
“We have already seen NHS chief executives refusing to support an imposition, and patient representatives have said they are appalled by this move,” Malawana went on to say.
“Added to this, the government’s former adviser on patient safety, Don Berwick, has said it should apologise to junior doctors over the contract dispute.
“The government must listen to the chorus of concern coming from all quarters and reconsider this disastrous approach.”
The contract, which critics say will be dangerous for patients, will mean that Saturdays between 7am and 5pm will become part of junior doctors’ normal working hours. The contract also extends normal working hours Monday through Friday until 9pm.
“If the government wants more seven-day services then, quite simply, it needs more doctors, nurses and support staff, and the extra investment necessary to deliver them,” Malawana said.
“Rather than address these issues head on, the government wants to introduce a contract that is unfair and in which junior doctors have no confidence,” he added.
The news of further strike action comes as the BBC revealed today (February 24) that health secretary Hunt may have misinterpreted data to put forward his case for a seven-day NHS.
The BBC found that Hunt had used the unverified and unpublished statistic last July that 6,000 deaths had been caused by the lack of a proper seven-day service. This statistic was repeatedly used by the government to make its case.
Emails unearthed by the BBC found that Hunt had seen sensitive study produced by the British Medical Journal on a seven-day service two months before it was published.
Media organisations asked the Department of Health the source of the 6,000 deaths statistic and they were unable to give an answer.
This prompted the UK Statistics Authority to write to NHS England that “data mentioned publicly by ministers should be available equally to all users”.
The scandal caused heated debate at Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) today (February 24), with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying in Parliament that “this dispute with junior doctors has been on the basis of misrepresented research.”
Labour shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander called for a full investigation.
“This is an extremely serious state of affairs given the weight attached to these figures by the health secretary in justifying changes to junior doctors’ contracts,” she said.
“Rather than admitting the source of the figures, it seems that civil servants had to cobble together a post-hoc rationalisation for Jeremy Hunt’s sound bites.”
Chair of Doctors in Unite Dr Ron Singer said that Unite “fully supports the junior doctors during this dispute.”
“The fact that the NHS must be disrupted from undertaking its usual business is entirely the fault of this government,” he said. “The dispute is nothing more than the outcome of the health secretary needlessly picking a fight with one of the most loyal and skilful sections of the NHS.”
“It is an indictment of this government that it has shown a complete disregard for the work of the NHS as well as the institution of the NHS itself.”