Junior doctors across England have started their three-day strike, protesting against inadequate pay and burnout that risks driving staff out of the National Health Service (NHS) as it tackles record-high patient waiting lists.
The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors and medical students, says junior doctors’ take-home pay has been cut by more than a quarter over the last 15 years, based on the Retail Price Index gauge of inflation and that its members voted overwhelmingly to strike.
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Junior doctors are qualified physicians, often with several years of experience, who work under the guidance of senior doctors and comprise a large part of the country’s medical community.
The walkouts by junior doctors from Monday will put more pressure on the state-funded NHS, which is experiencing waves of strike action by nurses, ambulance workers and other staff.
The NHS said it would “prioritise resources to protect emergency and critical care, maternity care and where possible prioritise patients who have waited the longest for elective care and cancer surgery”, but thousands of appointments and procedures will be cancelled during the 72-hour strike.
Daniel Zahedi, 27, is a junior doctor who describes his hospital in Cambridge, eastern England, as chronically understaffed and struggling.
“A lot of the time there’s not enough of us,” Zahedi said.
As a first-year doctor after his medical degree, Zahedi said he gets approximately 29,000 pounds ($35,000) a year as base pay for 40 hours a week minimum. He said he worked roughly 60 hours this week, which was a bit above the average but “not unusual”.
His student loan debt stands at about 100,000 pounds ($121,000).
“It’s not just 100 grand as a student; you’ve got to pay to be a member of your Royal College, you pay to do exams, to even progress in your career,” he said, adding that, as things stand, he cannot see himself remaining in the profession in the long term, despite his love for the job.
“People are burning out left, right and centre – where pay is just getting eroded year after year, where conditions are getting worse, where patient care is being damaged. They are feeling undervalued and people are leaving.”
Facing strikes across multiple sectors including train drivers and teachers, the government has said public sector pay restraint is needed in order to get double-digit inflation under control.
“We’ve reached a boiling point where we have had enough,” said Poh Wang – a council member of the BMA.
Wang plans to go on strike with tens of thousands of other British junior doctors, saying he is overworked, underpaid and burdened with a student loan he cannot imagine paying off.
The 28-year-old says he and his colleagues have been pushed to the brink after below-inflation pay rises collided with the surging cost of living to leave him questioning how he can ever pay off his more than 85,000 pounds ($101,000) of student debt.
Having attended medical school for six years, he has worked for five, two in speciality training as a psychiatrist.
He is paid approximately 40,000 pounds ($48,500) a year for his base 40 hours a week and works additional hours which can add up to about 48 hours a week. He rents a room in a shared flat in west London, an option that can cost about 1,000 pounds ($1,200) a month.
He remains incensed at his treatment during the pandemic when he felt powerless to cope with the onslaught of patients with COVID-19 symptoms – saying public displays of support did not pay the bills.
“We hate the sound of clapping, applause, because it’s empty,” said Wang, referring to Britain’s Clap for Our Carers campaign for health workers during the height of the pandemic. “If you value us and what we’ve gone through and in terms of the sacrifices that we’ve made, then pay us properly.”
On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched through London to the British prime minister’s residence to support healthcare workers who have held a series of strikes over pay and conditions in the NHS.
A wave of strikes has continued for months as workers across the country demand pay raises to keep pace with double-digit inflation.
In addition to healthcare workers, teachers, train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving examiners, bus drivers and postal workers have all walked off their jobs to demand higher pay.
Unions say wages, especially in the public sector, have fallen in real terms over the past decade, and a cost-of-living crisis fueled by sharply rising food and energy prices has left many struggling to pay their bills.
Britain’s annual inflation rate was 10.1 percent in January, down from a November peak of 11.1 percent but still a 40-year high.