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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Brown North of England correspondent

‘Nobody wants to be here’: cheers and sadness on junior doctors’ picket line

Dr Lauren Wallace holding her placard.
Dr Lauren Wallace on the picket line outside Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It was a morning of strikingly mixed emotions as about 50 junior doctors joined a picket line outside Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI): none wanted to be there but all thought they had no option.

Lauren Wallace, a doctor in the plastic surgery department, was carrying a placard featuring some updated Dolly Parton lyrics: “Workin’ nine to nine / It’s no way to make a livin’ …”

But even working 9am to 9pm would feel like a luxury, she said. For her, an on-call shift can last 30 hours.

“Nobody wants to be here. I really enjoy my job and I feel sad having to strike, but I just feel like nothing is going to change if I don’t.

Junior doctors on picket line holding BMA placards.
The British Medical Association union wants junior doctors to be given a 35% pay rise. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“I would prefer to be going into work, getting trained and doing what I’ve chosen to do, what I really love doing.”

The RVI picket line for the longest strike in the NHS’s history began at 7am on Wednesday. The six-day action is being held in what is typically one of the busiest weeks of the year – followed by the three days leading up to Christmas – and every doctor the Guardian talked to was painfully aware of the potential consequences.

In the morning gloom, the doctors were buoyed up by numerous cars and vans tooting their support as they passed. Each time it happened, doctors cheered.

Dr Kashif Cheema used a loud hailer to enliven his colleagues: “What do we want?” he shouted. The reply: “Pay restoration!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

Cheema said the dispute was about pay, which had been “cut by almost 30% over the past 15 years”. But it is intrinsically linked to the wider problems in the NHS.

Junior doctors on picket line wearing BMA hats.
Doctors on the picket line said they were painfully aware of the consequences the strike may have on patients. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“I see people in A&E and the standard of care, for the sixth largest economy in the world, it’s not good enough.

“People are waiting 10 hours in ambulance corridors because there aren’t enough of us here to see these patients. It is absolutely horrendous.”

He said hundreds of people were “dying needlessly” every week because of the long waits, and that doctor retention was a key issue.

“In order to fix this, we need to keep people here. We need to show they are valued, and the way to do that is to restore our pay.”

Dr Sumi Manirajan, the deputy co-chair of the British Medical Association’s UK doctors committee, was part of the Newcastle picket line.

“It is a really sad day for junior doctors,” she said. “We don’t want to go on strike.

“This is now our 29th day of strike action, our 14th month since our industrial action started and it did not have to come to this.”

Dr Sumi Manirajan on the picket line.
Dr Sumi Manirajan, a BMA union official, said the NHS was short of doctors due to underinvestment in its workforce. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

She compared the health service in England to that in Scotland, where “no junior doctor went on strike, where no patient had their appointment cancelled. I urge Victoria Atkins [the health secretary] to come to the table and negotiate with us because that is the only way our dispute will end.”

No one on Wednesday’s picket line wanted to be there, she said. “We want to be in hospital treating patients.”

Manirajan said that every day she went into work, no one knew if the rota was going to be staffed. “This is because doctors are leaving the NHS. Just last week, two of the best doctors I know left to go to Australia.

“We know that we are 50,000 doctors short compared to other European countries, we know that we have the worst mortality and morbidity from heart and attacks and strokes compared to other European countries.

“The reason is because we have not invested in our health care service and our biggest commodity is its workforce.”

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