Opinion

Doctors’ strikes are a matter of life and death for some. Why does Westminster allow them to drag on?

It may be beneficial for government to turn public opinion away from doctors, but that will not fix the problem

Striking junior doctors holding banners

Junior Doctors join the picket line outside of St Thomas' Hospital in London, 20 Sep 2023. Image: Ben Stevens/Shutterstock

Last Tuesday, the day before the doctors’ strike in England, two of my brothers were admitted to the City Hospital in Belfast. On Wednesday, the day of the strikes, one of them was donating a kidney to the other. As I write this, a lot of candles are being lit and fingers crossed by family. 

They are in very good hands because, as I’ve learned during the long process towards donation and transplant, the renal unit in the city is one of the leading such places globally. The people there are remarkable.

This is where it gets thorny. Because while Northern Ireland is failing in many ways due to the Stormont Assembly being suspended and Brexit having a hugely detrimental impact there, they have a devolved health system. This means that the doctors’ strike in England didn’t stop the operations going ahead. The operations had already been delayed once. Though elective surgery, it was vital the transplant happened. 

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This then leads to questions about where support for such industrial action goes. Is it enough to accept the goals but become less supportive when it hammers at your door? Because, you know, family. Had a strike stopped those two operations, with the impacts that would have on the individuals and then rippling through the wider family, and potentially ongoing costs for the NHS had health deteriorated for my brother needing the transplant, I would have been suddenly much less supportive of that decision to strike – though I know this isn’t fair.

I understand the reality of where funding over many years has led – to doctors feeling the only way to protect the ongoing health of the nation is for them, at junior and consultant level, to withdraw labour for a short period of time. And if not now, when? 

Also, if they don’t get better conditions now, does that mean that the chance of another world-beating renal unit in another part of the UK has less of a chance of getting set up?

In many ways, all of this is a matter of life and death. 

In Scotland, where there were similar strikes by junior doctors, a pay deal was struck several weeks ago that worked for all. 

Which then makes you wonder: if it was possible to reach accord there, why not in Westminster? The government can claim they are being led by a pay review body and that the ball is now in the doctors’ court, but that is a thin argument. Ultimately, the government hold the cards. It may be beneficial to turn public opinion away from doctors, but that is a short-term gain and ultimately even if it sends doctors back because politicians and doctors get locked in an attritional battle, it will not fix the problem. 

My family is not unique in relying on the health service in a major moment. While my selfish gene is very glad my brothers could have their operation, it’s cynical and obvious politicking to make the practitioner, those focused on helping people, become the bad part of this equation. It’s up to those with the levers to pull them for the benefit of all – now. 

And support organ donation. It saves lives.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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