Employment

'No doctor wants this': Junior doctors explain why they're on strike

Junior doctors on strike tell The Big Issue why they can't continue working on current pay and conditions while at a rally in Trafalgar Square, central London.

5 doctors stand in Trafalgar square holding placards such as 'we need pay relief'

Junior doctors at a rally in Trafalgar Square in April. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

Tens of thousands of doctors have walked out of hospitals and clinics in a four-day protest over poor pay and working conditions after years of pay freezes have seen professionals leave the health service in droves.

They’re calling for a 35 per cent pay rise which would restore their pay cheques to what they were worth in 2008, according to the British Medical Association. With pay not keeping pace with inflation for over a decade, many junior doctors are paid just £14 an hour.

“We don’t have enough doctors, the ones that remain are having to do the job of multiple doctors,” said Arjan Singh, chair of the north Thames branch of the British Medical Association (BMA) junior doctor committee, speaking to The Big Issue at a rally in Trafalgar Square. “Doctors doing the job of multiple doctors are tired, they get burned out, they’ll start to make mistakes and mistakes cost lives in a hospital.”

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Four in 10 doctors plan to leave the NHS, according to the BMA, and tens of thousands of NHS workers have already resigned over pay and conditions.

Paramedics, nurses and other healthcare workers in the NHS recently received a new offer from the government that could halt their strike action, with union members currently voting on whether or not to accept the deal of a 5.2 per cent pay rise from April plus two one-off payments at 2 per cent and 4 per cent. 

But junior doctors operate on a different wage structure, putting those on the lowest on the same pay as doormen and cleaners despite years of training and thousands of pounds of debt.

“There are doctors in their first year of work following medical school, graduating with £80-£100,000 of debt, who are being paid £14 an hour,” said Ada Zembrzycka, an anaesthetist at Whipps Cross Hospital in east London. “And they are fully trained, fully qualified medical professionals who prescribe life-saving medications like really strong antibiotics in the middle of the night for patients who need their help the most who are there, often the first doctor to see a person whose heart has stopped and tried to restart it.

“I just don’t feel like this is a fair wage for the job that we do. And we definitely do not feel valued.”

Ada Zembrzycka said she feels ‘undervalued’ by the government. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big issue

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has called the pay demand “unreasonable” and “not affordable for the British taxpayer”. 

“We call on the BMA junior doctors to cease their strikes and revise their starting point for negotiations,” said a Number 10 spokesperson, speaking to lobby reporters on the morning of the strikes. 

“We know that the strike action will have an impact on patient care. The last set of strikes saw around 180,000 operations cancelled and that was a three-day strike, so we’d expect to see higher numbers this week.”

“It’s a last resort going on strike, no doctor wants to do this,” continued Singh. “It’s really quite sad. And a lot of these days are tinged with a lot of sadness.

“Doctors are patients as well, my family members are patients, they’ve got clinics and operations cancelled. This all could have been avoided if Steve Barclay had got around the table and gave us a credible offer that we could give to our members. But he has declined to do so.”

Ayesha Shafaq Chaudary said junior doctors are “understaffed, overworked, overstressed” and under paid. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

“I think it’s about time that the government starts taking us seriously because as we speak, as of now, the NHS is seeing doctors leave in droves. And it’s already in crisis state,” said Ayesha Shafaq Chaudary, chair of the BMA’s West Midlands junior doctor committee.

“So if we don’t take any actions right now, it’s only going to get worse. So it’s understaffed, overworked, overstressed, and on top of all of that, with the increase in living costs, just making it very difficult for junior doctors to make their ends meet. So if we don’t do anything now, it will be too late.”

“We don’t like giving [patients] this substandard level of care that we’re forced to,” continued Singh. “Because there’s not enough of us. We want to give you the very best, but we can’t because there’s not enough doctors.

“The NHS used to be the gold standard used to be the envy of the world. It was a case study on how you delivered health care. We don’t have a first class health care system anymore. And it’s really sad, we need to retain doctors. If you want to restore the NHS you must restore the wages of the people that work in the NHS.”

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