Kay is on strike today, tomorrow and Wednesday. For those who don't know, she is a junior NHS doctor employed at a busy London hospital. She will be striking this week together with thousands of other doctors. From conversations I have had with people and from some coverage on the media, it is not altogether clear what the reasoning behind the strike is and why doctors should have an almost 100% walk-out for three solid days and why they are asking for a 35% pay-rise. So I hope I can explain here. But before people worry about who will cover their work while they strike, it will done by consultants, who are fully behind their juniors striking.
First, who are the junior doctors? A "junior doctor" is anyone from someone who has only just got their medical degree from university right up to just below Consultant level. It takes at least 11 years or more to get to consultant level so the junior doctors are typically aged from about 25 to 40 years old. Some are older if they have taken alternative routes or started later. By then most will have partners, children and mortgage commitments. Despite being called "junior", from the moment they leave university they are thrown into the deep end and when they do on-call shifts -at weekends or at night - they can be the only doctor in the whole hospital dealing with hundreds of patients who might suddenly get worse. So although termed "junior" they are expected to step up to the plate and work hard making stressful life-and-death decisions on their own.
During those 11 years or so, they are told (not given a choice) where they will be posted and move around each year from hospital to hospital and from rotation to rotation until they gain more experience in different specialities. This can mean they cannot put down roots anywhere nor take out mortgages if, say, they are expected to move every year to somewhere fifty miles or more away. Their children may have to be moved to another school, or couples live apart. It doesn't make for an easy home life.
Home life is not easy anyway. In their spare time they regularly have to study for even more exams that will qualify them to move up the career ladder. They don't get study leave - it is done in their spare time. They have to pay for these exams too, some of them averagely costing about £600 - £800 which they don't get reimbursed. If they fail the exam, they pay again. Studying on top of an often 60-hour week doesn't come easy and means less relaxation time after a stressful working week. Not only exams, but also having to write and present papers, do the odd bit of teaching to those more junior than them - it all hacks away at less time to de-stress.
It is always expected by NHS management that the staff will shut up and put up with their conditions. A conscientious doctor cannot walk away from a patient just because their shift technically finishes at a certain time. If a patient is really sick and needs reviewing or, in the extreme, resuscitation, a doctor will stay sometimes one or two hours beyond their shift to deal with it. If they have already done a 12-hour shift, that is a big ask. Covid saw a demoralised workforce, mentally shattered and with no respect for what they had done. Agreed, the public clapped for them at the beginning, but now moan that there are long waiting lists. The general praise was short-lived and the government support pushed under the carpet. Many of the workforce have left either to retrain away from medicine or emigrate to places like Australia or America, where doctors are held in higher regard and paid accordingly. This has left existing staff under even more pressure and feeling burnt out. Not to mention undervalued.
The money is just the last straw. The fact is that they have not had pay rises since 2008 and so with inflation have actually taken a 35% pay cut. As one recent poster put it, they get paid less than someone who serves coffee in Pret a Manger. Why would you study at university for six years, be faced with endless stressful life-and-death decisions, have to give up free time to study even more and get paid the same as a coffee barista with shorter working hours and more free time? It's a no brainer.
So please support the strike. The junior doctors are not being greedy, they just want to be valued for their hard work and the difficult conditions they have worked under, especially during and since Covid.