The epitome of British trade union muscle used to be Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), whose Marxist leadership was prepared to b
The epitome of British trade union muscle used to be Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), whose Marxist leadership was prepared to bring down governments, Conservative or Labour, if it didn’t get its way.
It took Margaret Thatcher to put a stop to its shenanigans in the mid-1980s by refusing to back down in one of the country’s most brutal industrial conflicts.
Today’s equivalent of the NUM is the British Medical Association (BMA), the doctors’ union.
It doesn’t quite have the power to destroy governments — though its top militants wish it had — but it is prepared to cause chaos in an NHS still struggling to recover from the pandemic in pursuit of ludicrous pay demands. Even if it means misery for patients and endangers life.
Just who will play the Thatcher role this time is far from clear.
NHS consultants demonstrate at a British Medical Association (BMA) picket line outside University College Hospital
Arthur Scargill, then president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), waving to miners and their supporters as he walks with Tony Benn during a protest against pit closures in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1984
For the first time ever, the BMA has arranged it so that consultants and junior doctors down stethoscopes on the same days: first later this month (September 20) and then three days early next month (October 2, 3 and 4).
The aim is to put maximum pressure on the Government to cave in, whatever the cost.
Even Matthew Taylor, the Blairite boss of the NHS Confederation, who is usually more comfortable criticising the Government than telling home truths to the BMA, says it is a ‘step too far’, and even though ‘Christmas Day levels of cover have been promised’, it is inevitable that ‘patient safety is at risk’.
The junior doctors, led by a cabal of Corbynistas, have already done enough damage. They’ve walked out five times since last December, totting up no fewer than 19 days of industrial action, which has resulted in one million appointments and operations being cancelled, often hitting patients who had waited months or, in some cases, more than a year, to be treated.
The callous strikers are well aware that their autumn walk-outs will hinder NHS preparations for what could be a tough winter, with Covid hospital admissions at their highest for three months and worries that a virulent flu strain is on its way.
The NHS could hardly be in worse shape to cope with this unprecedented wave of strikes. There is already a record waiting list of 7.6 million people — more than one in ten of the population — and strike action is impeding Government efforts to reduce it.
For some, the waiting list is a death sentence. This week it was revealed that over 60 per cent of those who died in England last year were on an NHS waiting list — a total of 340,000 deaths, up more than 40 per cent on five years ago.
Practicing physicians belonging to the British Medical Association (BMA) walk through Downing Street on August 11
BMA consultant members on the picket line outside King’s College University Hospital, London
Who knows how many lives could have been saved if a strike-free NHS had been allowed to get on with the herculean task of tackling the huge post-pandemic backlog? But we can be sure more will now die.
The upcoming industrial action will mean the cancellation of even more appointments and procedures, lengthening waiting lists when they should be falling and condemning even more to unnecessary, premature death.
In addition, hundreds of thousands will be needlessly subjected to the stress and fear of not knowing when they will be admitted for that vital operation.
And for what? To sate the cynical greed and grandstanding of the new breed of Generation Z militants who are now in control of the BMA.
The junior doctors are refusing to budge from a demand for a 35 per cent pay rise, something to which no government could acquiesce — even Labour has said it would reject it.
The BMA is every bit as political (i.e. anti-Tory) as the coalmining leadership of old. It even agreed a deal with the SNP government in Edinburgh similar to the one being offered in Westminster largely because the doctors find it more congenial than the Tory administration in London.
Andrew Neil: ‘Much nonsense has been allowed to spread unchallenged about junior doctors earning less than Starbucks baristas’
Instead, the BMA and its members will inflict more pain and misery on patients considerably less well off, on average, than them.
Much nonsense has been allowed to spread unchallenged about junior doctors earning less than Starbucks baristas.
In fact, a junior doctor earns on average £37,000 in their first year, rising to £43,000 in year two and more than £71,000 by year four.
Not a king’s ransom to be sure given all the training and hard work required. But it’s almost twice the average earnings of their patients and that’s before the government’s recent 9 per cent pay offer.
They have guaranteed job security unless found responsible for gross misconduct (and even then they don’t always get fired). Plus, the Government (i.e. the taxpayer) pays an additional 20 per cent of salary into their pension pots. The average equivalent for most workers is 5 per cent.
Consultants fare even better. Their average pay is £134,000, placing them in the top 2 per cent of earners, according to the Nuffield Trust.
And many consultants top up their NHS pay with substantial extra earnings from lucrative private practice.
Doctors operate in a global labour market and Britain needs to become more competitive. But the junior doctors’ pay demand is absurd and the consultants have no business being on strike
Then, of course, there are the generous pension payments on top of that, which allow them to retire at 65 on a £78,000 pension for life. Many do. Many others can afford to retire even earlier, sometimes as young as 50.
Yet their union leader claims consultants are ‘undervalued and undermined’ by the Government. It’s difficult to know what planet he’s on.
Would he say the same of GPs? They are not on strike (at least not yet), and why would they be? The average GP partner (and most GPs are partners) now earns more than £153,000 a year — up 20 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. It’s only right that doctors should earn well, given the arduous training required to become one and the responsibilities the role involves. It’s also right that their pay should rise regularly to reflect their growing experience and increased responsibilities.
Doctors operate in a global labour market and Britain needs to become more competitive. But the junior doctors’ pay demand is absurd and the consultants have no business being on strike.
Of course, you will hear the strike leaders claim that huge pay rises could be afforded if only the stingy Tories would properly fund the health service, as they do in more enlightened nations. That is another canard that needs to be exposed.
The latest OECD figures on health spending for 2022 were published earlier this year and they show that we devoted 11.3 per cent of our GDP to the health sector.
Among the world’s advanced nations, only four spend a higher share than us and only two spend considerably more: Germany and the U.S.
Germany, which spends 12.7 per cent of its GDP on health, has compulsory social insurance, which — though it results in raising more money for healthcare — is universally opposed by the BMA and every other UK health union.
In America, where health spending takes 17 per cent of GDP, it still leaves tens of millions of people without healthcare and so remains a system which nobody in their right mind would ever want to emulate.
The proper criticism of the Conservatives is not that they are spending too little on health but that they’ve given up any ambition to reform the NHS to get more bang for our bucks.
Tory policy these past four years has simply been to throw more money at the NHS to keep its unions quiet. Indeed, even Labour has been talking more about reform these days.
But it hasn’t worked and there’s not enough money around to satisfy the unreasonable demands of the doctors. Ministers will simply have to hold the fort, much as they’ve done with the train drivers, until the consultants realise they haven’t a leg to stand on and the inexperienced Gen Z amateurs now calling the shots at the BMA make mistakes.
Public opinion will turn — and when it does, it won’t be against the Government, lame duck that it is. But this transition would happen more quickly if ministers were capable of selling their side of the story with rather more conviction and authority.
Their case is stronger than they make out. But then, just like the BMA, this Government has too many inexperienced amateurs of its own.