It wasn’t meant to go like this. We were meant to cross the picket line in waves, our public support was meant to crumble, and trust in our profession was meant to disintegrate as our strike imperiled patients’ lives.
Alas, for the Department of Health spin doctors, 78% of junior doctors went on all-out strike yesterday, our public support has held if not increased, and – above all – thanks to the exceptional support of our consultant colleagues, no hospital anywhere saw a patient safety incident requiring juniors to return to work. Dr Cliff Mann, the President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine no less, stated he was “absolutely” sure lives had not been put at risk because of the cover provided by other doctors and nurses.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all for DoH press was the change in tenor of yesterday’s news coverage. Not once did the BBC News at 6 and 10 refer to this as a ‘pay dispute’, nor to the ‘key sticking point’ being Saturday overtime. The credibility of that government narrative has been blown to bits by junior doctors everywhere, speaking out on camera with such simple sincerity. Our testimony is compelling, I would argue, because it has the merit of being true: stretching an overwhelmed, exhausted workforce even more thinly across 7 days, not 5, can only endanger patients.
In contrast, it’s fair to say that Jeremy Hunt did not have the greatest of news days. The morning began with him literally hiding in a chauffer-driven Jaguar that whisked him 50 yards from Downing Street to his own department in order to avoid three protesting junior doctors, myself included. Later, skewered by his interviewers on both BBC Newsnight and Channel 4 News, he inspired a political neologism. His palpable awkwardness under cross-examination of his assertion that 500 doctors have already signed his new contract unleashed ‘#squirmaggedon’ on Twitter.
‘Squirmaggedon’ hasn’t made it into the OED yet, but someone’s already leaked me a draft definition. It says:
“The involuntary physical manifestations of attempting to defend the indefensible on live national television. Usually observed in politicians. A minor variant also prevalent in schoolboys, caught out by their teachers, while attempting to excuse their missing homework. ”
Personally, I hadn’t seen squirming like it since 1998 when US President Bill Clinton, speaking live from the White House, Hillary at his side, emphatically stated: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Under subsequent cross examination before a Grand Jury, this ringing declamation crumbled into linguistics so contorted, so farcical, that at one stage Clinton found himself justifying the truthfulness of his statement that “there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship” with the legendary answer: “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.
Jeremy Hunt has an equally Clintonesque way with words, in particular his constant evocation of his manifesto ‘pledge’ to justify his actions. As doctors, trust is our core value. So the sincerity of politicians’ pledges and promises really, really matters to us. That manifesto pledge “to provide a truly seven-day NHS” doesn’t just stop there. “We will go further,” the manifesto states, “with hospitals properly staffed, so that the quality of care is the same every day of the week.”
The ‘pledge’ to which Mr Hunt clings ever more desperately, is to deliver a “properly staffed” seven-day NHS. But there are no staff to make this happen. Junior doctors are not the problem – it is our lack that makes the policy unravel. Hospitals are currently riddled with gaps in doctors’ rotas. One in five paediatrics training jobs go unfilled; over half of young A&E trainees quit after two years in post. We simply cannot do more without additional doctors, we are perilously overstretched as it is. If Mr Hunt cannot grasp that fundamental truth about the NHS frontline, his legacy won’t just be an industrial relations debacle. We will hold him directly responsible for endangering patients with an unfunded, unstaffed soundbite he lacks the candour to admit he cannot deliver.