Thousands of doctors in England to strike again as health likely to become a key UK election issue


LONDON (AP) — Thousands of doctors in the early years of their careers in England are to go on strike later this month for another five-day stretch as their long-standing pay dispute with the British government remains in stasis.

The British Medical Association, the union that represents the so-called junior doctors, said on Friday that the government had “failed to meet the deadline to put an improved pay offer on the table” and that they would go on strike from Feb. 24 to Feb. 28.

The junior doctors, who form the backbone of hospital and clinical care as they train up to be specialists in a particular field, have walked off the job on nine occasions over the past year and last month they went on strike for six days, the longest in the history of the state-funded National Health Service.

“We remain willing to carry on talking and to cancel the forthcoming strikes if significant progress is made and a credible offer is put forward,” the BMA’s junior doctors committee co-chairs Dr. Robert Laurenson and Dr. Vivek Trivedi said.

The union says newly qualified doctors earn 15.53 pounds ($19.37) an hour — the U.K. minimum wage is just over 10 pounds an hour — though salaries rise rapidly after the first year. The BMA has been asking for 35% “pay restoration” as its starting position, but has said it is willing to negotiate.

The Conservative government has said it won’t negotiate unless the union calls off the strike.

“We already provided them with a pay increase of up to 10.3% and were prepared to go further,” said Health Secretary Victoria Atkins. “I ask the junior doctors’ committee to cancel their action and come back to the table to find a way forward for patients and our NHS.”

Senior doctors, known as consultants, and other medics have been drafted in to cover for emergency services, critical care and maternity services during the strikes. The consultants themselves are also in dispute with the government over their recent pay award but have yet to set any dates for any further strikes.

The upcoming strike means thousands more canceled appointments and operations, putting further pressure on the NHS to deal with a backlog that is likely to be a key issue in the general election later this year.

Britain has endured a year of rolling strikes across the health sector as staff sought pay rises to offset the soaring cost of living. Unions say wages, especially in the public sector, have fallen in real terms over the past decade, and double-digit inflation in late 2022 and early 2023, fueled by sharply rising food and energy prices, left many workers struggling to pay their bills.

Many groups within the NHS, such as nurses and ambulance crews, have reached pay deals with the government, but the union representing junior doctors has held out, and negotiations broke down late last year.

If it goes ahead, the strike would be the junior doctors’ last on the current mandate, which expires at the end of the month. Further strikes would require another vote among members which the BMA is currently undertaking.

The government is seeking to apportion many of the problems in the NHS on the junior doctors, while the main opposition Labour Party, which is way ahead in opinion polls, points the finger at Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for personally blocking progress.

“He bears responsibility for the canceled operations and appointments desperate patients will face once again,” said Wes Streeting, Labour’s health spokesman. “This can’t go on. Patients are desperate and staff are worn out.”

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