Doctors in England defend starting longest strike in NHS history

People hold placards calling for better pay for junior doctors, as they stand on a picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital in central London on January 3, 2024, on the first day of six days of strike action. Photo: AFP

People hold placards calling for better pay for junior doctors, as they stand on a picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital in central London on January 3, 2024, on the first day of six days of strike action. Photo: AFP

Published Jan 4, 2024


Junior doctors in England on Wednesday defended a decision to start their longest consecutive strike in the seven-decade history of Britain's National Health Service (NHS).

The doctors -- those below consultant level -- began the six-day walkout yesterday, in a major escalation of a long-running pay dispute with the UK government.

The industrial action, which ends next Tuesday, comes at one of the busiest times of the year for the state-funded NHS, when it faces increased pressure from winter respiratory illnesses.

It follows a three-day strike held by doctors just before Christmas, and a series of stoppages across various UK industries and sectors last year sparked by high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

Striking doctors say their wages have gone down by around a quarter in real terms under the current government, which has been in power since 2010.

"I'm here because we deserve better as doctors," Callum Parr, an accident and emergency doctor from London, told AFP from a picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital in the British capital.

The 25-year-old medic said he was £120 000 (R2.8 million) in debt after six years at university, and facing increasing costs including rapidly rising rental prices in the city.

"Our job is hard, we knew it would be hard, we went to medical school which is also hard, and we want to help patients," he said. "But you also have to be able to pay your bills."

Retention issues

Outside the hospital, across the River Thames from the UK parliament, medics held up signs calling for better funding for the overstretched health service.

Others read "£15/hour is not a fair wage for a junior doctor" and "Reduced pay keeps the doctor away" with a map of Australia, which has previously advertised for UK-based staff to move.

"Retention is not going to happen if we don't pay our doctors properly," said Shivani Ganesh, a 23-year-old medical student.

"We are highly intelligent and highly skilled people, and other companies and other countries do value those skills and pay us appropriately," he said.

UK Health Secretary Victoria Atkins warned that the latest strikes would have a "serious impact" on patients across the country.

More than 1.2 million appointments have been rescheduled since the start of the strikes, including more than 88000 last month, she added.

The British Medical Association (BMA) announced the walkout in December after a breakdown in talks with the government.

Junior doctors have gone on strike seven times since March.

"I urge the BMA Junior Doctors Committee to call off their strikes and come back to the negotiating table so we can find a fair and reasonable solution to end the strikes once and for all," Atkins said.


The union said junior doctors had been offered a 3% rise on top of the average 8.8% increase they were given earlier this year.

It rejected the offer because the cash would be split unevenly across different doctor grades and would "still amount to pay cuts for many doctors" after inflation.

The co-chair of the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, Robert Laurenson, accused the government of failing to broker new talks.

"Strike action is the only thing this government will sit down and listen to," he told AFP, warning of more strikes to come without a "credible" pay offer.

The NHS itself said the latest stoppage, which could see up to half the medical workforce on picket lines, would have "a significant impact on almost all routine care".

"This January could be one of the most difficult starts to the year the NHS has ever faced," said its national medical director, Stephen Powis.

The NHS typically sees a rise in the number of people in hospital in the two weeks after Christmas, due to people delaying seeking treatment in order to spend the festive season with loved ones.

The service is already facing huge backlogs in waiting times for appointments and surgery, blamed on treatment postponement during the Covid pandemic, but also years of under-funding.

Julian Hartley, the CEO of NHS Providers, which represents hospital groups in England, said the effect of the strikes on patients would be "significant".