Two people hold a placard reading "Cuts leave scars. Protect the NHS".

Junior doctors protest ahead of strikes over pay

“Claps don’t pay the bill” was the chant of junior doctors as they marched through the streets ahead of potential strike action over pay later this year. 

Junior doctors, applauded throughout the pandemic, have endured a 26% real terms pay cut since 2008, according to the British Medical Association (BMA), and in 2022/23 were offered a 2% pay rise, well below the current level of inflation. 

On Saturday, January 21, around 250 people, a mixture of junior doctors from the BMA and unions including Aslef and Unison, marched from the BRI to College Green where a demo was held. 

Emma Runswick, a junior doctor and deputy chair of the BMA council, said that doctors are taking action because of low pay and the effect that has on their ability to care for patients. 

Although pay is the BMA’s demand, the demonstration, said Runswick, is ‘fundamentally about quality of care,’ 

‘We think that people deserve a better NHS in order to achieve that we need pay restoration,’ she added. 

Junior doctors were offered a 2% pay rise in 2022/23 as a consequence of contracts agreed in 2019, before the pandemic and the subsequent spike in inflation rates. 

Pay is determined by the Doctors’ and Dentists’ Review Body, an independent body. The BMA says that because of the earlier 2% pay deal, junior doctors have been excluded from pay negotiations by the government.

Surveys by the BMA have found that half of junior doctors struggle to pay their bills, whilst 79% said they are thinking of leaving the NHS. 

Concerns over pay are also driving junior doctors to leave the country, seeking work in New Zealand and Australia. 

One anonymous junior doctor on the march said that he personally knows 10 fellow junior doctors who are moving to New Zealand, where he said staff have better conditions, less stress and higher wages. 

‘It is really sad to see in this country. We’ve got one NHS and if they don’t give staff the support, morale and the working conditions then people are going to leave,’ he said. 

A man poses next to placards holding a sign that reads "the grass is greener when you water it"
Doctors in the early years of their career are already seeing colleagues leave due to low pay. Image: James Ward.
A woman holds a placard reading "Strikes are not killing patients. the government is."
Protesters were united in where blame for the current crisis lies. Image: James Ward.

The low pay offered to junior doctors has consequences beyond hospitals. 

Amy recently left her job as a pharmacist due to the stress of the job and having to work several extra hours every day treating people who ought to have been in hospital. 

‘People were coming in with conditions that I recognised as urgent but they couldn’t get doctor’s appointments in, they couldn’t get ambulances, so people were coming to the pharmacists with things that I knew potentially to be life-threatening,’ she said. 

The BMA is currently balloting its 50,000 junior doctors on whether to take strike action. Runswick said she expects a yes vote when the ballot closes on February 20, after which the BMA will announce strikes. 

‘We hope the government will see sense and negotiate with us to avoid stroke action, but if not we’re prepared to do what’s necessary,’ she said. The action comes as the Royal College of Nursing prepares for strike action, too.

Nurses across the country, including the North Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation trusts, will take to the picket lines on Monday, February 6, and Tuesday, February 7, to demand a pay rise of 5% above inflation.

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