The problem with Jeremy is that he is basically alienating people who should be the party’s natural constituents through poor decision-making and ill-thought-through policy. No, not that Jeremy – I’m talking about the health secretary, who in a matter of weeks has somehow managed to convince doctors to go on protest marches and threaten strike action, leaving patients in an ever-more precarious situation.
The background to this is the negotiation over junior doctors’ new contracts, which resulted in the British Medical Association walking out of negotiations a few weeks ago. Proposed changes, supposedly designed to create a more even and transparent pay structure, appear to be designed to remove the financial incentive for doctors working antisocial hours, and the BMA believes it could result in a 30 per cent reduction in doctors’ salaries. This pay deal applies only to junior doctors, who are not earning vast salaries and, like the rest of us, are largely dependent on the vagaries of the private rented sector or paying a mortgage they can ill-afford. Many are genuinely fearful they will be made homeless by what is planned.
Hunt has compounded the problem by on the one hand saying that the 30 per cent figure is misleading while at the same time failing to produce any alternatives. If the pay deal is not going to hurt doctors, the sensible thing to do would be to publish the data which showed that. Failure to do so is surely a sign that the Tories do not have the best interests of doctors at heart.
This of course comes as the NHS is creaking under the weight of constant structural change, shrinking funding and an ageing population with growing demands for care. Doctors who have spent a minimum of five years at university are dropped on to wards which are understaffed and stretched to the limit. They are typically working long beyond their contracted hours, exhausted and desperately trying to provide good quality care in impossible conditions. Historically the Tories could bank on the medical profession as surefire Conservative voters – yet now they are creating an all-new breed of doctor, who is willing to go on protest marches, consider striking and vote Labour. What is crazy is that this represents the double whammy of bad policy – it causes harm and makes no electoral sense.
By the end of September, the General Medical Council revealed that nearly 3,500 junior doctors had applied for the certificate which enables them to practise abroad. To give some context, around 7,500 new doctors graduate every year, so we are looking at a large chunk of new recruits leaving the United Kingdom. The New Zealand government is actively running recruitment campaigns over here – and, frankly, who would not want to flee from 14-hour shifts and the prospect of a 30 per cent pay cut? When the government treats junior doctors with such contempt, there is no incentive for them to stay, but there is no way the NHS will cope if half the medical workforce leaves.
The way that junior doctors are paid is complicated and there is a clear argument that the system needed reform. But change which means they could be facing a 30 per cent salary reduction is not tidying up a complex system – it is a brutal pay cut which is forcing talented medics out of their profession. Even Conservative health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston has admitted that her junior doctor daughter has fled to Australia to escape the pressures placed on British medics. If Hunt’s own side cannot defend his actions then he really is in trouble.
The time for warm, meaningless words from the health secretary has passed – he urgently needs to publish what he is proposing, and make sure that that proposal is not just a pay cut, before it is too late.
Maeve McCormack is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. She tweets @McCormackMaeve
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