Junior doctors at Tunbridge Wells Hospital in Pembury joined their colleagues in another national strike last week amid claims that new national contracts will create ‘unsafe conditions’ for patients.
The long-running dispute has created an increasingly tense stand-off between doctors and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who says the contract changes are necessary to deliver NHS hospital treatment seven-days a week.
Speaking to the Times last Thursday during their second 48-hour strike – the fourth industrial action in two months – doctors expressed their frustration.
According to staff, the seven-day working patterns being proposed would be unworkable without the Government increasing the number of doctors.
The British Medical Association, which has started legal action against Jeremy Hunt after his decision to impose the contracts, has also claimed the new terms discriminate against women in terms of maternity leave.
Rebecca Hart, a 29-year-old junior doctor at Tunbridge Wells, said there was a strong feeling among colleagues that the Health Secretary was not listening to their collective concerns.
She said: “There are a number of factors that we disagree with on the new contracts that are being imposed. We’re concerned that strikes are portrayed as being about money and us not willing to work all hours – which many of us do already and we already have 24/7 emergency care.
“This is actually about the fact that they are not recruiting any more doctors, which will put patient safety at risk. Here at Tunbridge Wells there is a situation where elective surgery procedures are being cancelled due to the lack of beds.”
Lucia Chen, a 24-year-old first year medical graduate, shared these concerns. She believes they were taking action over an important point of principle, believing that trying to operate the same amount of coverage over seven days with the same level of resources used to staff a five-day system made no sense.
She said: “We have seen some of the shift pattern examples they have given and they are erratic and unmanageable. It is making me think about whether I stay in the profession – though I do not want to leave.”
Fellow junior doctor Edward Scott, 28, felt that all his colleagues remained passionate about their work as doctors, but that stretching services beyond present levels was endangering patients’ safety.
He said: “It’s a very hard situation, as we feel that we are not being listened to by the people who are making these new contracts and that our views have not been taken into account, which is very frustrating.”
In response, a spokesperson from the Department of Health said: “This strike is irresponsible and disproportionate, and with almost 25,000 operations cancelled nationally so far, it is patients who are suffering.
“If the BMA had agreed to negotiate on Saturday pay, as they promised to do through ACAS in November, we’d have a negotiated agreement by now. We ask doctors to look at the detail of the contract and call on the BMA to cancel their plans to escalate strike action even further.”
Angela Gallagher, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust’s Chief Operating Officer, said the safety of patients remained a priority at all times.