New contract strike justified by patient safety concerns, say Suffolk and Essex junior doctors

Picket line at Ipswich Hospital

Picket line at Ipswich Hospital

Junior doctors in Suffolk and Essex have insisted their first strike action in 40 years triggered by a row with the Government over a new contract was justified.

Junior doctor and BMA representative Matt Egan organised the strike outside Colchester General Hospi

Junior doctor and BMA representative Matt Egan organised the strike outside Colchester General Hospital. - Credit: Su Anderson

The region’s main hospitals provided emergency care only yesterday as dozens of junior doctors went on strike despite last-ditch talks to prevent the damaging action.

Waving placards emblazoned with the phrase ‘not safe, not fair’, two picket lines were formed at Ipswich Hospital from 8am to 12.30pm. No appointments were cancelled prior to protest but 60 outpatient appointments were rearranged.

Leading one of the picket lines, Nick Schindler, who has been a junior doctor for four-and-a-half years and joined Ipswich Hospital last September, said the walkout was “justified”.

Against a backdrop of passing vehicles honking in support, he said: “I’m striking because the Governments want to impose unsafe and unfair contracts.

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“The proposed contracts take away safeguards that prevent trusts from issuing rotas with unsafe hours.

“Judging by how many cars have been beeping their horns, and a national poll showing 66% of people are in support, I think we have got the public’s support.

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“I think there are justified. I really regret any disruption caused to patients and I really am sorry, but I have got to think of the NHS and the long-term.”

Other junior doctors could be heard telling passers-by that they were not campaigning for personal gain but to protect the NHS from the “spin” of the government.

The Government says the new deal would have an absolute limit of 72 hours in any week, lower than the 91 hours that the current arrangements allow.

In addition, hospitals are currently monitored, with financial penalties if doctors are regularly working longer hours than the European Working Time Directive allows. But this system is to be scrapped. Junior doctors have raised concerns that this will mean they are put under more pressure to work unsafe hours.

Fauzia Begum, a junior doctor in her second year at Ipswich Hospital, warned some of her colleagues are being stretched beyond breaking point because of their shift work and the number of hours they work.

She said: “I am striking for the sake of patients as I don’t believe they deserve doctors who are overworked, which is my main issue.

“When you are overworked, you cannot function as well. We are highly trained, highly skilled, but no matter how skilled you are fatigued beyond what is normal for a human being, you can make mistakes.”

The spokesman thanked members of the public for bearing with the hospital and for their support during the strike action.

Currently, 7pm to 7am Monday to Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday attract a premium rate of pay.

Under the Government’s offer, junior doctors would receive time-and-a-half for any hours worked Monday to Sunday between 10pm and 7am, and time-and-a-third for any hours worked between 7pm and 10pm on Saturdays and 7am and 10pm on Sundays.

The BMA has said there are still several areas of dispute, despite Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt saying the only sticking point is weekend pay.

An Ipswich Hospital spokesman said: “We didn’t cancel any appointments and we rescheduled around 80 outpatient appointments but many of those were brought forward.

“Everybody pulled out all the stops and worked together really well, including the junior doctors, so it meant we were able to deliver high quality, compassionate care to patients.”

At West Suffolk Hospital, 36 junior doctors – joined by a few members of the public – stood at the picket line.

Emma Gordon, a British Medical Association member, helped organise Bury St Edmunds’ hospital strike.

“It’s been overwhelming, with really fantastic support from the public,” she said, adding none of the doctors had been “particularly keen” on coming out on strike in the first place but felt they were left with no other option.

“At the end of the day our main concern is that being asked to do this will mean becoming unsafe for our patients. Nobody wants their doctors making mistakes,” she said.

“It makes sense to everyone really if you have got well-rested doctors working sensible shifts.”

Speaking of West Suffolk Hospital, she described it as “fantastic”, with a “phenomenally supportive management team”.

“It’s a small hospital and everyone gets on very well, we have a fantastic culture here,” she said. “It’s a really nice hospital to work in.”

A spokeswoman from West Suffolk Hospital said: “We have an excellent relationship with our junior doctors and worked closely with them and our consultants in the run up to the planned industrial action to put contingency plans in place. Our focus at all times has been on continuing to provide safe, effective care with minimal disruption for patients.

“During the day, we postponed 10 routine operations and five day cases as well as around 100 outpatient appointments. We are offering all of the patients affected an alternative date as soon as possible. Our emergency department has been open as usual and urgent and emergency care has not been affected

At Colchester Hospital junior doctor and BMA rep Matthew Egan also felt his colleagues were justified in their decision to strike.

“It’s going to be completely unsafe,” he said of the Government’s proposed contract.

“This is really going to end up not only with patient safety being compromised but also doctors aren’t going to want to work in those conditions. I think it’s got to be the Government that backs down. I don’t think doctors will back down.”

A spokesman for Colchester Hospital said: “The trust hopes that the dispute between the BMA and Government is resolved as soon as possible and deeply regrets any impact it will have on patients.

“Our plan is to give all postponed patients new appointments as soon as practicably possible.

“We apologise to those patients who have been affected.

“Our message to the public remains unchanged – accident and emergency departments, like the one at Colchester General Hospital, should be used only in a critical or life-threatening situation.”

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