My first ever Bank Holiday on-call was very nearly the death of me. In the split second that my eyelids drooped, I crashed my car headlong into a stationary vehicle.
Working 70 hours across one Easter weekend isn’t only a personal death risk for junior doctors. When your doctor’s judgment is so impaired they think they can drive safely while being virtually comatose, it’s your life that hangs in the balance.
And that is why my conscience compels me to strike tomorrow morning. I owe my patients nothing less - because this contract is as toxic to patients as it is to doctors.
Jeremy Hunt would have you believe this dispute is about nothing nobler than our pay packets. But doctors aren’t money-motivated, and no-one chooses medicine to get rich quick. We work our crippling rotas, with their interminable hours, because nothing could be as fulfilling as helping our patients through some of life’s most difficult and distressing experiences. It is my privilege to witness the very best of human nature – strength, dignity, stoicism and selflessness – in the patients I treat.
But there is only so much we can take. In an NHS debilitated by underfunding, the intensity and length of our shifts is already brutal. I have wept in a corridor at 5am because I can’t endure another 6 or 7 hours of my screaming bleep, yet I have no choice – I’m all the patients have. During these on-calls, I have had patients bleed out all over my scrubs, held others tight in my arms as they die and told parents their children have cancer. All with no rest, no respite, and no downtime. No wonder the suicide rate among doctors is twice the national average.
Jeremy Hunt says he cares about patient safety at weekends, yet he’s pledged not one single extra pound towards an improved hospital service. Instead, his cheapskate solution to weekend underfunding is to stretch an already broken workforce of juniors so our weekly core hours extend from 60 to 90. Worse, he wants to take away the contractual safeguards that currently stop hospitals working us ever more brutally.
What you will get in Hunt’s brave new world is quite simply a workforce of junior doctors too demoralised, battered and broken to do a decent job for you. We will still want to do our best, but we will be too ground down to hold your lives in our hands with any confidence. The question for me therefore isn’t why am I striking, but how can I not strike? My duty as a doctor demands it.
What I need from Jeremy Hunt right now is honesty. No profession in the country takes trust more seriously than doctors and, right now, not a doctor in the country trusts our Health Secretary. I need him to stop spinning. To stop playing fast and loose with statistics, twisting them to fit his political ends, while scaremongering our patients into fearing hospitals at weekends. I need him to acknowledge publicly that when he has united the entire medical profession against him, he’s got something fundamentally wrong.
Above all, to win back our trust, his first act of good faith must be to remove his threat of imposing the new contract if he doesn’t get his own way in negotiations. Otherwise, to me he’s a bully, not a negotiator. It’s sheer desperation that’s driven us to strike. Jeremy Hunt tells us his door is always open – so please, Jeremy, listen. Work with us to build a new contract that protects, not endangers our patients.
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