Thousands of junior doctors took to picket lines around the North East for the first day of a 72-hour-long strike - and they warned that without Government action to reverse years of declining pay, medics will leave the NHS and patient safety will be compromised.
The striking NHS doctors - members of the British Medical Association - asked "why are we worth 26% less than our colleagues were in 2008?" as they took to pickets outside of major hospitals including the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Freeman Hospital and Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital. The medics told ChronicleLive how medicine was no longer the desirable career it once was.
More than 37,000 doctors returned ballot papers earlier this year, with 98% in favour of strike action. The BMA says pay has fallen in real terms 26% since 2008 - and the union wants a pay rise this year that remedies this.
Read more: North East NHS prepares for junior doctors strike: Bosses have 'contingency plans in place' while medics say they're 'fed up and frustrated'
On the picket line at the RVI, A&E doctor Anastasia May arrived straight from a twelve and a half hour shift. She told ChronicleLive: "It's good to see everyone supporting us here. I work in A&E and I'm here because we deserve to be paid fairly for the work we are doing. We have seen pay fall 26% since 2008. But our workload has only increased.
"There are more patients coming in, they have more conditions that need attending to and at the same time bed numbers in hospitals have decreased. All that together makes the work more difficult. And we are not worth 26% less than junior doctors in 2008.
"I have come straight from a twelve and a half hour A&E shift. The decision to strike is an incredibly difficult one, especially in a profession as fundamental as health care. Today the consultants in A&E have been supportive of our cause. They have ensured that everything has been adequately covered."
Others at the picket, including Cecily Christopher, Sarah Cook and Clara Munro explained how difficult a decision walking out on strike had been. Cecily said: "The most important thing is that people know there's been a 26% pay cut - and we're asking for restoration, not even a rise.
"Especially when you are dealing with potentially £100,000 debt for some people, it really does not make medicine a desirable career any more. And we need to be trying to recruit the best people to be doctors. And retain them. What I really do want to say is simple, I don't want to be here on strike. It's deeply uncomfortable."
Clara added: "We were both reticent. It's the right thing long-term though, even if it's uncomfortable in the short term. We are all fairly fortunate with where we work, that we work in places where there good support from seniors - so we know things will be safe."
As the falling real-terms pay makes it harder to recruit and retain staff, Clara said this led to the worsening problems seen throughout the NHS. "This makes NHS is already really inefficient," she added. "And unless we take a stand it's going to be grinding to a halt even quicker than it would otherwise."
Amna Khalid said the pressures on the NHS were linked with its workforce crisis - and said that being a medic in an NHS without the resources necessary was morale-sapping. She said: "It's all about patient safety isn't it? And patient safety is affected every day when I walk into A&E and there are patients who've been there ten hours and I have to give them breadcrumbs.
"I didn't become a doctor to give breadcrumbs. I did that to give all of myself to help patients - but we can't do that at the moment."
Martin Whyte, the deputy chair of the BMA's junior doctors committee and a paediatric registrar in Newcastle, added: "“Over the past 15 years we have had a 26% pay cut in real terms which has got us to the point where a newly qualified doctor is paid £14.09 per hour to provide essential out-of-hours and in-hours medical care.
"As a profession, we find this intolerable and it had got to the point where our members have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action."
Martin said local consultants had been supportive of their juniors and added: "There's no spin. Fundamentally, all we are doing is telling the truth. We are laying out the facts and they speak for themselves.
"The £14 an hour figure is a really useful one to talk about. I had someone come up to us who really couldn't believe that's really how little doctors are paid these days."
Retired consultant Charlie Tomson also visited the picket line to show solidarity. He said: "If we don't pay doctors what they deserve, we will lose them to other countries that will pay them better. I have had a fantastic career and started off working really hard as a junior doctor - but the conditions are harder now. It's a bloody difficult job. It's really scary what they have to do, much scarier than it was when I was a junior."
In its new campaign, the BMA says junior doctors can make more serving coffee than saving patients. This is based on the lowest-earning qualified doctors taking home £14.09 an hour, compared to £14.10 in Pret. The coffee chain recently announced it has raised wages by 19% this year.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said the comparison is "misleading" as it does not take into account the additional earning capacity and pay progression available to junior doctors. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters on his flight to the US on Sunday it is "very disappointing that the junior doctors’ union are not engaging with the Government".
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