The world is in turmoil at home and abroad, and with rows over the savage autumn budget, and the ominously impending vote to bomb Syria, still taking up the majority of campaigners energies, it is easy for good news to fall through the cracks. Still, when a victory, or even a temporary stay of execution, is won, it is important not only to enjoy the moment, but also to ask why. This week the Junior Doctors stopped the government in their tracks, and goodness knows we could all use a formula for that.
I’ve seen a hundred stalls in Norwich city centre in my time as an activist, but it was nice to discover I could still be surprised by the public. The Junior Doctors stall on Saturday afternoon wasn’t unlike any I’d seen before – petitions, stickers, leaflets, occasional chanted slogans etc – but the response was something else. “I don’t know what you want,” one enthused passer-by began, “but you have my support!” He wasn’t the only one, and it wasn’t hard to spot others who’d been to chat to the soon-to-be-striking doctors about their proposed picket, as there was a crowd of people wearing giant blue stickers all day.
The strike was, of course, called off late on Monday night, as the British Medical Association made a breakthrough. The government, for now at least, climbed down from their initial threat of imposing a new contract for Junior Doctors that would have seen them become increasingly over-worked, by weakening safeguards on limiting excessive hours, and curbs to unsociable hours pay. As well as an extensive working day or night-shifts in every aspect of the NHS from GP surgeries to A&E, staff often have to fit in study and exams on top of this. Any further workload might not only have put them under further significant psychological strain finding balance between work and life, but it would have put patients at significant risk in the long term.
Soon after what can only be described as a massive U-turn by the government, the BBC reported that, even after the strikes were postponed, “thousands of operations” – 381 of which were at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – were still to be cancelled as the announcement came too late. This undoubtedly cast the Junior Doctors in something of a bad light, the implication being if those ‘selfish’, ‘privileged’ staff hadn’t bothered to strike in the first place, Mrs Jones could have had her hip-op on time. But it also illustrates a vital point; thousands of operations could not occur but for the presence of Junior Doctors. Lives potentially depend on their skills and commitment; do you want people responsible for your or your family’s welfare to be functioning at anything less than 100%?
Indeed, the same BBC article features the testament of one patient who is frustrated by the postponement of a procedure which would prevent him a good deal of pain. The article goes to a good length to explain the “knife-like” pain he endures, before mentioning in passing, he supports the striking staff “100%.” He adds: “I don’t blame them. They do a cracking job.” That praise is a good two thirds into the article though, so it’s basically in “tree falling in empty woods” territory. Convenient for the Corporation, still trying to evade cuts of its own by proving what a valuable lap-dog it can be to the government. I digress.
In the short term, patients were inconvenienced, but in the long term, patients would have been placed in severe danger by the measures that the BMA stood up to. Measures that would undoubtedly have led to a fall in the standards of the NHS, and inevitably to a gas-lit justification for the ruthless selling off of Britain’s most precious institution. Measures that 98% of those the BMA balloted voted to strike against.
Of course, this is not the end. The government are in no mood to take the NHS off the menu – and they will undoubtedly fall back on their old habits of bullying Nurses instead as soon as the dust settles in 2016. When that happens, Junior Doctors need to stand with them. All aspects of the NHS must stand as one to protect the service as a whole. Any further weakening, from cutting admin (increasing waiting lists) to “frontline” staff (decreasing quality of care) will be used as further justification of introducing private capital to the NHS. What can we learn more generally though?
We should not be afraid to organise, or to take action, legal or otherwise, in order to preserve or improve public institutions.
We should not be afraid to organise, or to take action, legal or otherwise, in order to preserve or improve public institutions. The “general public” do in fact understand long-term arguments, even when they are personally affected by strike action; and even in its increasingly weakened state, they support the NHS almost unconditionally. The supposed hatred of unions in this country is also still less than the appreciation of services we all rely on for our very survival. When faced with that, the government needs to step back – especially when facing backlash on several other fronts at once.
With thousands practically beating down the door at number 10 to oppose reckless public service cuts, needless wars, dangerous nuclear weapon renewals and heartless anti-refugee policy, David Cameron’s Conservative government are spread thin, even with a Parliamentary majority. They find themselves in as great a crisis as the Labour party, and have been forced to give ground, just as they gave ground on Tax Credits. It might only be temporary respite, but it is progress none the less. If we push on together, and grow in number, it could be more than that. This is what a united movement against austerity and for a peaceful, equal country can achieve.