Protest or progress? Taking safety beyond a hashtag

Dr Oscar ToHeadshot barts crest

Staff writer


Last Saturday saw the demonstration of thousands of doctors across the country in protest against the forceful imposition of new contracts reducing pay by 30% across numerous specialties. This latest protest being part of a wider campaign that has seen mass demonstrations throughout numerous cities throughout the United Kingdom in spite of the fact that the contract has been rejected by both Wales and Scotland. It is rare to see a disparate group of professionals normally set apart by fractious specialisation united in one purpose in rejecting what amounts to unilateral financial punishment for no other reason than simply being public sector workers in the National Health Service.


Ceci n’est pas une grève (this is not a strike): Protestors brandish a sign parodying René Magritte’s Treachery of Images. Photo: Annalouise Heath. Placard: Joshua Nazareth & Ayushi Sen

The hashtags symbolising the issues at stake primarily involve patient safety with #notsafenotfair providing a succinct argument. The contract is not safe, removing fundamental financial safeguards that prevent managers, whose only concept of reality is the amount of money being haemorrhaged on their pie charts, from being able to wilfully abuse medical rotas to destroy the life of any doctor. The second part of ‘notfair’ refers to the heart of the matter that negotiation over the contract simply does not exist if 22 out of 23 points of the contract are non-negotiable. This amounts to what many people would call an ultimatum.

Nonetheless, like all politicians, Jeremy Hunt is not going to simply back down and apologise for angering a whole profession, instead, he has first of all tried to do some good old conservative union busting by asking us to blame the BMA for lying to us. Whilst doctors, being a middleclass profession, seem natural supporters of the conservatives, there are limits to how much tried and tested rhetoric can work on a profession that relies on evidence. If we had been misled by the BMA, the first point of action would not have been to build a media offensive of doctors of being lazy. The government cannot expect good will after abusing ours; we are not sufferers of Stockholm syndrome (unlike Southern England).

Indeed, the fact that politicians often seem to be competent at lying rather than anything which resembles ministerial duties is one reason why they have much lower trust ratings than even trade union bosses. The fact of the matter is that listening to the same old work harder lazy people rhetoric simply does not do justice to the complex issues of poverty; for every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong. People simply cannot work their way out of poverty if there are no jobs, or if all their money is going into an inflated rental market.

We have seen the results of these government policies over the past 5 years, and that the effects are only going to get worse with more families forced into poverty because welfare is a dirty word. The cutting of tax credits will plunge even more families, already at the breadline, into making choices between heating or food. Admissions are already rising in hospitals, but this will only get worse as the government willingly deprives people of food, homes and a right to live.

We cannot simply wait another 5 years whilst a government, ideologically hell bent on implementing social cleansing continues to act free of conscience. It is all fine and well that we choose to use #notsafenotfair as a symbol of our cause, but is it really anything more than that? We are not pushing for anything other than a rejection of this contract and a return to status quo. If we really want patients to be safe, we have to do far more and push for structural changes to the running of the NHS.

The Francis inquiry has been quietly shelved after being simply a fiasco to throw at the Labour party for political points. Key provisions recommended that were not implemented were the provision of minimum staffing levels to ensure safety of patients. Recent reports by the Care Quality Commission which found two-thirds of hospitals offering substandard care also found that levels of staffing were a key issue across the board. This is no doubt driven by the fact that the NHS has been systematically leached of necessary funding on the dubious grounds of efficiency savings. The fundamental reality being that if there is not enough money, no amount of efficiency can provide a functioning system.

This dispute needs to be more than about us, it needs to include the whole NHS. There is no doubt that the government will simply target other sectors if they are unable to push through the junior contract. We must build a broader coalition with nursing, cleaners, allied health professionals. We are all necessary to ensure the best patient care. No one is more necessary than anyone else.

But we must also look even further. We did not act when the government attempted to close down Lewisham A&E, and it took the local community to force the government back. The movement we have created can and should be about much more than pay. England is straining under a political system that is well past the post. Scotland is forging its own destiny with a government that has not only rejected the contract but also started looking at changing 48 hour working weeks to average over an actual week instead of six months. The conservatives should consider themselves lucky the SNP haven’t used this issue to force the agenda in parliament. Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn, someone that many people assumed was a no-hoper in the contest. The population is starting to realise that the government is corrupt and ideologically driven, inflicting suffering on millions for no reason other than a textbook theory. We need to take our momentum further than the medical profession and let people know that they can fight against the government and win. The people of the United Kingdom want no more business as usual. Neither should we.

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