Junior doctors believe they are winning public support in Suffolk amid historic NHS strike over government contract

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital.

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Junior doctors believe they are winning the public’s support amid an historic NHS strike against the Government’s decision to force through a controversial contract.

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital.

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Dozens of junior doctors joined picket lines at the region’s hospitals yesterday after last-ditch efforts failed to break the stalemate between health secretary Jeremy Hunt and the British Medical Association (BMA) over the new contract.

Click here to vote in our poll about whether you support the strike and read a Q&A about the strike.

The impasse prompted the nationwide industrial action between 8am and 5pm. Junior doctors withdrew full labour, including emergency care. The two-day walkout ends today.

But hospital chiefs say extra consultant cover is maintaining a “safe and effective” service in the region.

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital.

Junior doctors strike outside Ipswich Hospital. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

This morning, Nick Hulme, chief executive of Ipswich Hospital, tweeted: “Just reviewing yesterday and last night. All is good (at Ipswich Hospital). Thanks to all staff for their hard work. Plans all in place for today.” He yesterday tweeted a picture of contingency planning maps for his hospital, adding: “Great work from all the teams.”

The online poll carried out by this newspaper found that 62% of readers (207 out of 333) support the industrial action. Some 69% (190 out of 276) also blame the Government for the strike.

It comes despite the strike causing cancelled operations or rescheduled appointments for more than 1,300 patients at Ipswich Hospital, West Suffolk Hospital (WSH) in Bury St Edmunds and Colchester General Hospital.

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Sadia Choudhury, 29, who has been a junior doctor at Ipswich Hospital for five years, admitted the first all-out strike in the history of the NHS risked denting growing public support.

Junior doctors on strike at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds.

Junior doctors on strike at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Against a backdrop of supportive beeps from passing vehicles outside the Heath Road site, she said: “The public was always on our side but when you have a full walkout, we knew there was going to be a risk that we might lose public support but we felt this was the next, necessary step to take.

“So we are pleasantly surprised that we have around 60% of the public’s support and I am extremely grateful.

“Support has been growing and I think, importantly, information has been spread better. The public are more aware of the dispute.

“I think the other main reason for their support is that I’m not sure how much the public trusts its own government.”

Junior doctors on strike at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds.

Junior doctors on strike at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Gregg Brown

She added: “We are striking quite simply because we are against the imposition of this new contract.

“There are a lot of aspects that I don’t agree with, but my top three are that it is a sexist contract which the government has agreed to, it punishes and puts people off applying to acute and emergency specialties, and it removes safeguarding for doctors.

“Simply put, the government has said that we would be working fewer hours. So if we work fewer hours but spread out more thinly over seven days, naturally there is going to be cracks within the rota. There will be random days where this is no cover with no doctor and personally I think the government are playing Russian Roulette with people’s lives.

“I think it is a wonderful idea to have a seven-day NHS with seven-day routine services and seven-day emergency services. Currently, we have seven-day emergency services, but the routine services expand only over five days. If you want routine services over seven days, that’s perfectly fine, but you need to fund it and you need the staff to cover it.

“We would not just need more junior doctors. We would need more nurses, we would need more porters, we would need the whole staff group to cover Saturday and Sunday as well.

“But currently, I don’t think the weekend service needs to be improved. The emergency service that we have currently that spans seven days is exactly the same on Monday as it is on Saturday. That is something people don’t realise.

“(The reported higher weekend death rates) are unfortunately a spin of statistics. The 11,000 that has been quoted is quoted from Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. That is four days, and not a weekend.

“Today is a sad day for England because England has always been the envy of the world for having in terms of healthcare and education and today we face a time when both teachers and doctors are protesting for essentially for the welfare of their students and the safety of the patients.”

Junior doctors outside Ipswich Hospital put up banners with slogans including “honk if you love the NHS”, “prescription for dying NHS: Huntectomy”, “warning, danger: new contract is bad for our health”, and “treat us like humans, not minions”.

Kieron Kumar, 25, who has been a junior doctor at Ipswich Hospital for eight months, said: “The government has been really dishonest in not only how they are handling us, but how they are trying to sell the contract and the reasons behind it.

“There aren’t really many doctors who believe the statistics put out by Jeremy Hunt about weekend deaths. We think it is a bit of spin to help the Government sell an agenda.

“And the main thing, what they are trying to do is provide the same level of cover across a seven-day service without increasing the amount of resources from a five-day service. So they are going to stretch everything thinner, and at the moment, where I work, we are coping with five days and we have the seven-day emergency cover. So trying to stretch everything across those seven days is just going to thin everything out to the point where people are just exhausted and won’t be able to do it.

“My message to (Mr Hunt) would be to sit back and really think about what he is trying to achieve. It seems like a short-term goal of being able to say that he is covering the NHS for seven days. But does he really want to be remembered as the Health Secretary who stretched things to the point where the whole NHS just fell apart?”

Mr Hunt has admitted this is likely to be his “last big job in politics” but insisted the Government will not be “blackmailed” into dropping its manifesto pledge of improving seven-day services.

He said that “elements” in the BMA had refused to compromise over the new contract, which will be imposed on doctors from August.

The strike is the first time services such as A&E, maternity and intensive care have been affected during the dispute over a new contract.

In total, 168 planned operations scheduled over the two days have been cancelled at Ipswich Hospital, West Suffolk Hospital, in Bury St Edmunds, and Colchester General Hospital.

Another 1,201 outpatient appointments have also been rescheduled.

Junior doctors on strike in Bury St Edmunds braved the wind, hail and wintry showers and said they had received a lot of support in the town and on the picket line.

Rachel Hubbard, surgical trainee at West Suffolk Hospital (WSH), said: “We are trying to ensure that the NHS is safe now and in the future. The new contract is fundamentally unsafe – it discriminates against women as doctors and removes the safeguards against overworking that are currently in place.

“Tired doctors make mistakes and we do not want to make mistakes which could harm patients. We are out protecting an NHS that is safe, effective and free at the point of use.

“We have spent the morning going around [town] and asking for signatures in support. Those that don’t support us, we have been able to talk to them and explain it is about the safety of the NHS and not about money.”

The striking doctors are confident that the care provided at the Bury hospital during the strike is safe, despite withdrawing emergency care for the first time from 8am until 5pm today and for the same hours tomorrow.

“We would not go on strike without doing our research,” added Ms Hubbard, whose colleague Becky Olleenshaw helped rota the cover from consultants. “We are confident that there is 100% cover from consultants in A&E – the consultants are behind us and support our position. They care about protectig a safe NHS as much as we do.

“If we did not go on strike and simply allowed them to impose this contract, we would not be protecting safety in the NHS, which is what we believe in.”

Andrew Gardner, an F1 junior doctor, said the strikes were not about money, but claimed that in reality what the Government are calling a 13% pay rise was in fact a 20% pay cut.

He said: “All junior doctors believe in a seven day NHS but we want a properly resourced seven-day NHS, not just tired doctors working extra hours and making mistakes.”

He said that more resources, such as employing nurses, specialists and junior doctors, is the key to providing seven-day care – not imposing a “dangerous” contract.

The doctors on the Bury picket line also criticised the Government’s “misuse” of mortality figures at weekends, saying their was no proof at all that junior doctor staffing or contracts had any bearing on mortality rates.

A key issue in the new, imposed contract dispute is weekend pay. It cuts the pay offered to doctors at weekends, but increases basic pay.

The BMA has defended the strike, but said it will call it off if health secretary Jeremy Hunt agrees to lift his threat to impose the contract.

Mr Hunt yesterday appealed to junior doctors not to withdraw emergency cover during their strike, but said “no trade union” has the right to veto a Government manifesto commitment.

In a clear sign that he will not back down from the dispute, he told MPs changes were needed to create safer services at weekends. He previously warned lives were being put at risk and the “extreme action” was “deeply worrying for patients”.

Jon Green, chief operating officer at WSH, said: “We have maintained safe and effective services for our patients throughout the day. Our consultants have provided cover across the hospital, while we have also seen fewer people attending the emergency department than we would usually expect, which has also helped.

“Our message to patients ahead of Wednesday’s planned action remains the same – please use services wisely and only attend the emergency department if absolutely necessary.

“NHS 111 can give you advice if you are not sure which service you need, while your pharmacist can help with a wide range of different conditions.”

A spokesman for Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust said: “The day so far has gone without incident and the detailed planning that was undertaken has meant the Trust has safely maintained all the emergency areas that we had planned for.

“Junior doctors have been keen to stress that they would leave the picket line if there was major disruption to the plans to cover emergency activity or a major incident but this has not been required.”

An Ipswich Hospital spokesman also confirmed there were no major incidents during the strike.