As a junior doctor, I was touched by the public’s kindness and support for our strike – and I’d like to say thankyou

Under icy skies, our picket line – uncharted, unnerving territory for junior doctors – generated much warmth. A beaming great grandmother pressed steaming hot coffee into my hands, while earlier a pre-school tot proudly presented homemade biscuits to us all. I couldn’t feel my feet, my legs would not stop shivering, but the public radiated warmth. At times, we were almost deafened by support – a cacophony of honking from the passing cars and lorries. Every hoot, toot and blast of the horns strengthened our resolve to battle on. They represented the public – our patients of tomorrow – showing us that were not alone.

Yesterday, more than ever, junior doctors needed their public. The government spin machine threw it all our way. We braced for an onslaught of attack and innuendo. And when helping is ingrained in what you do, allegations of abandoning those you help are wounding to the core.

What better antidote than simple human warmth to those denouncements, accusations and spin? The statistics, reassuringly, speak for themselves: 66 per cent of the public supported us in our strike. But in a war of words, it’s the human touch that brings relief and consolation. I always knew precisely why I had to strike. The paper promise of ‘a truly seven-day NHS’ – with no actual funds to pay for the promise – could only ever be a manifesto scam.

Through gritted teeth, I resolved to strike to protect my patients from the dangers of junior doctors being forced to work longer and harder to provide the extra services the government hopes they’ll get for free. But what I really needed, it turns out, was to know I was believed. That my bond of trust with patients could survive a doctors’ strike.

So thank God for all the smiles, hugs and thumbs up yesterday – for every single act of kindness from the public on our picket line. Deep down, we’ve been afraid we might lose you. There are those, I know, who do believe no end can justify the means of doctors striking. But the picket line was truly inspirational, its message loud and clear. From what I saw, our patients’ trust, though tested, endures.

Without trust, a doctor is nothing. I earn my patients’ trust by communicating with honesty, openness and integrity. In a dispute this toxic and fraught, I expect my Health Secretary to do the same with me. Instead, he’s shows a tendency for diplomacy through tweeting. He’s chosen to leak the details of our contract to the media, rather than sending them first to us. And his Department of Heath has pressured Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of NHS England, into ‘sexing up’ his letter insinuating that we might not help the victims of a Paris-style terror attack in England. Political stunts like these are just corrosive. Most junior doctors wouldn’t trust Jeremy Hunt to sell them a used car, let alone hold the future of the NHS in his hands.

So where now? Well, politicians can learn a thing or two from doctors when it comes to building trust with people. Yesterday – standing outside with the public in a last ditch protest to preserve our NHS – has renewed my faith in the power of face to face human contact. It is time to draw a line and start afresh. The government needs publicly to accept responsibility for losing the trust of UK doctors. On our part, we can then return to the table in good faith. Jeremy Hunt keeps saying his door is always open to junior doctors, and yet he hasn’t been seen in public with a junior doctor since July last year. That needs to change, starting now.

Originally published in Independent Voices, 13.01.2016

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