Junior doctors have begun their 72-hour strike today, with tens of thousands of NHS appointments cancelled. NHS chiefs are more worried about the impact of this industrial action than they were about strikes by nurses or ambulance workers. This is not least because doctors who are members of the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association are walking out from emergency care as well as elective treatment.
The political dynamic between ministers and the BMA in particular is very different to that with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The BMA has been at loggerheads with successive governments throughout the 75 years of the health service’s existence. The RCN, on the other hand, has been a more moderate force – with just the odd spell of booing health secretaries at conferences from time to time. The current stand-off, over whether junior doctors should get a 35 per cent pay rise to compensate for a real-terms loss of income of 26 per cent since 2008/09, failed to reach a resolution before this strike because both sides claim the other is refusing to engage.
On the side of the government, Rishi Sunak told journalists travelling with him to San Diego that it is ‘very disappointing that the junior doctors’ union are not engaging with the government’ and that ‘we are actually having constructive dialogue with other unions who have accepted our offer to come in and talk’. That last line is a reference to the nursing strikes, which are currently on pause after the two sides agreed to discuss pay.
It isn’t accurate to say that the unions ‘accepted our offer to come in and talk’, though. In the case of the RCN, the breakthrough came when Steve Barclay offered to discuss pay for 2022/23, rather than for 2023/24.