Every politician craves a legacy. They covet a name that lives on, an achievement that outlasts them. For Abraham Lincoln, it was the abolition of slavery; for Nelson Mandela, the fight against apartheid; and for our own Nye Bevan, the first national health service, free to all at the point of use. In my lifetime, I remember wincing when, even before leaving office, Tony Blair hopefully invoked the hand of history, resting on his shoulders.
Until now, junior doctors have failed to do justice to the legacy our Health Secretary will leave. Credit where credit’s due: Jeremy Hunt has achieved something remarkable – though perhaps not quite his intended goal. He hopes, I’m pretty certain, to be remembered as an insatiable evangelist for patient safety. A devoted twitterer, last month he tweeted:
“Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, together we will continue to strive to make the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world.”
His actual legacy may be rather different. Single-handedly, Mr Hunt has galvanised, energised and empowered an entire generation of young doctors. He has managed to turn us en masse from the pliant, subservient workhorses of the NHS into leaders who stand up for our principles. 54,000 of us have found not only a common identity, but a compelling vision we never knew we shared. For all the government’s spin about Saturdays, we fundamentally oppose this contract because we know that a seven day service needs seven day funding – and stretching doctors and nurses more thinly will only endanger our patients’ safety.
Believe me, radicalising a workforce of people-pleasing doctors is no mean feat. We’ve spent our lifetimes obligingly jumping through hoops. When the rebels among our schoolmates went behind the bike sheds, we went to the library to swot up on our A grades. After five or six more years of higher academic servitude, we dutifully joined an employer that treats its most junior doctors like cattle. Time off for your wedding or honeymoon? Not a chance, you’re on-call for that fortnight. A rota in advance so you can plan your childcare? Nope, you’ll get your new rota on day one of your new job, and by the way, you’ll be starting on night shifts. A rest room that’s reasonably clean and functional? Try this one that’s infested with rats in the ceiling and cockroaches on the floor.
We used to take this treatment with remarkable docility. Considering our qualifications and other job opportunities, we couldn’t have been more passive and enfeebled. Well, not any more. Mr Hunt should feel proud. The GMC, the medical Royal Colleges and even NHS Employers have all sought in the past to turn young doctors into leaders. Now they have 54,000 of us. Grassroots junior doctors have harnessed social media to formidable effect. We’ve organized a 20,000-strong march on Downing Street (and stayed behind to pick up the litter afterwards: docility never entirely dies). We’ve given broadcast interviews that have gone viral, each reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers. And yesterday, four of us made legal history by launching the most successful crowd-funded legal action ever, receiving over £50,000 of public donations in less than 24 hours to fight the government’s unsafe junior contract.
No health secretary in the history of the NHS has so effectively empowered a generation of doctors. That’s a formidable legacy whose repercussions will reverberate through the NHS for decades. Health Secretaries come and go but we – the generation who went on strike for our convictions – are the Bruce Keoghs of tomorrow. Of course Mr Hunt couldn’t have done it alone. The deafening silence of the Prime Minister, David Cameron – his unwillingness to step up and take responsibility for this crisis – has helped create the vacuum of leadership in which grassroots doctors have taken reluctant centre stage. We don’t want to be here, we just want to do our day jobs. But we simply will not let our patients down.