A few months ago, paramedics were on the brink of industrial action. They had legitimate grievances. Ambulance services were being run down, their staffing levels were dangerously thin — and the mismanagement (much of it exposed by Mary Wakefield in The Spectator) was horrendous. But in the end they stepped back from the brink — for good reason. It went against their nature to endanger lives, and in addition it would have been a tactical mistake. If a single patient died as a result of the strike, paramedics would have lost public sympathy. Should a nationalised health service really use the unwell as a bargaining chip?
English doctors have not shown the same strategic foresight. They cancelled 3,000 operations on Wednesday because of a dispute over pay, saying they would give only emergency care. At least some of those cancelled operations will have serious consequences, as the doctors well know. In the long term, everyone who depends on the NHS will feel a little less safe and doctors look as if they are holding a nation to ransom.
The doctors have good reason to be upset. Their new contract has been handled badly by a government that has at times looked almost as if it was inviting confrontation. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has made his case badly, placing too much weight on a controversial study suggesting that patients receive worse care at weekends. But the British Medical Association’s argument has sometimes bordered on outright deceit. It published a fake pay calculator on its website, wrongly suggesting that doctors’ pay would go down. It claims it is worried about patient safety: the blunt truth is that it is worried about money. The BMA is organising an NHS-wide strike because it can, taking advantage of the fact that the NHS is a massive, monolithic bureaucracy to impose a nationwide stoppage.