Services affected as thousands of doctors go on strike in UK

Doctors say years of below-inflation pay increases mean they have effectively had a 26% pay cut since 2008

Junior doctors protest over low wages in London. — Reuters
Junior doctors protest over low wages in London. — Reuters

UK hospital doctors on Monday began a three-day strike over pay at the start of a week that will also see teachers, train staff and civil servants walk out, in the latest wave of industrial action.

The doctors say years of below-inflation pay increases mean they have effectively had a 26% pay cut since 2008.

Ahead of the stoppage, the body that represents them, the British Medical Association (BMA), launched an advertising campaign claiming a newly qualified doctor earned less than some coffee shop staff.

"Pret a Manger has announced it will pay up to £14.10 ($17.13) per hour," the ad said.

"A junior doctor makes just £14.09. Thanks to this government you can make more serving coffee than saving patients. This week junior doctors will take strike action so they are paid what they are worth."

On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of workers are expected to walk out, including teachers, London Underground train drivers, BBC journalists, and university staff.

Since last year the UK has been plagued by strikes across the economy from nurses and ambulance staff to lawyers and dock workers fuelled by soaring food, energy and housing costs.

They have all clashed with the government, which insists the country cannot afford inflation-busting pay hikes.

The strike by so-called junior doctors — a category of doctors who are not senior specialists but who can still have decades of experience — is the longest they have ever staged.

The BMA says junior doctors in England, who mostly work in hospitals but also in some cases in general practitioners' surgeries, have suffered a 26% real-terms cut to their pay since 2008-09.

Public support

"For my most junior colleagues the issue is that they are financially burdened by debt and their income doesn´t allow them to have the security that they should expect," Vincent McCaughen, 37, who is training to be a specialist cardiologist, told AFP.

"People who feel more secure financially, who have a standard of living that hasn´t got worse, will be able to engage more of their emotional energy in their patients," he said on a picket line outside St Bartholomew's Hospital in central London.

Doctors and nurses' leaders have repeatedly warned that poor pay and conditions are driving UK-trained medical and nursing staff abroad at a time of record waiting lists exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic backlog.

"Is it any surprise that junior doctors are looking for jobs abroad or in other fields when the government is telling them they are worth more than a quarter less than they were in 2008?" said Robert Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi, co-chairs of the BMA junior doctors' committee, in a joint statement.

Around 80 doctors and supporters joined a picket line outside Leeds General Infirmary in the northern city.

A constant stream of motorists signalled their support by honking their car horns as the doctors sang "Claps don't pay the bills", referring to the country's weekly routine of applauding healthcare workers during the pandemic.

"It's really reassuring when members of the public go past honking their horns, giving us messages of support. It reemphasises why we´re doing this," said Chris Morris, a doctor and BMA rep.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the BMA's decision to push ahead with the strike was "incredibly disappointing".

He said the body had declined to enter formal pay negotiations on condition that the strikes were paused.

Other unions representing nurses and ambulance workers had put their strike action on hold to allow negotiations to continue this week, he added.