Today, thousands of doctors lay down their stethoscopes in a valiant defence of the state religion. More than 5,000 operations have been cancelled as a result of the latest walkout, which begins at 8am and will last 48 hours. If their placards bear the truth, those striking believe they are sacrificing themselves unto the throes of poverty for the sake of universal healthcare and the safety of their patients.
Jeremy Hunt is a fool. That much is uncontroversial to say, and nobody could confuse me for a Tory-bashing leftist. I support competitive markets in healthcare, as well as the private provision of services. I support the eventual redundancy of doctors through robotisation of their roles. At the start of the current dispute, I opposed the strike and was accused of being Jeremy Hunt’s spy. Some of my least pleasant colleagues threatened to sabotage my career.
But it doesn’t take a Corbynista to notice the cluelessness of Mr Hunt’s ideas. It takes a lot, on the other hand, to make the spectacularly heterogeneous NHS workforce unanimously agree in favour of one’s idiocy. The reason patients with dementia die unnecessarily in hospital is not because consultants fail to grant them gratuitous, platitudinous daily cameos, just to satisfy one of Hunt’s spurious ideas. The reason is because social care provisions have been so savaged and barbarously neglected by the current government that medically fit patients with dementia have to stay in hospital for no reason other than to catch serious, frequently fatal infections. Responsibility for this lies squarely with the government.
Hunt’s guesswork approach to healthcare is painfully evident elsewhere. His suggestion that doctors lack a sense of vocation was utter moonshine. Anyone who knows a doctor will tell you how intolerably obsessed with medicine they are. High suicide rates among doctors are a testimony to the extreme stress and commitment of many doctors’ lives. A&E doctors have a lower life expectancy than poverty-ridden countries like Afghanistan and Haiti.
Hunt’s approach elsewhere is scandalous. His misrepresentation of statistics to suggest that a sizeable number of doctors oppose the strikes is difficult to place between mere deceit and an outright lie. The percentage of doctors voting for strikes clearly proves him wrong. That is far from the only example. It is unlikely that even the Tory leadership can feign support for his shambolic handling of the dispute much longer: rumours of his sacking must have some truth to them.
And yet the message of the strike remains utterly implausible. The foundations of the NHS – even more so the foundations of universal healthcare – are not shaken by making doctors work more weekends without paying them extra. Doctors have seen far more destructive measures passed with no mention of a strike. In any case, even if the Tories wanted to do away with the NHS, is it at all plausible that they would commit electoral suicide by razing voters’ most sacred national treasure to the ground? Clearly not.
Nor is this plausibly about patient safety. Doctors already work absurd, dangerous hours, for a variety of reasons: money, pride, vocation, understaffed wards, and more. If the right sort of money was on offer, I suspect most would be happy to continue doing so.
Perhaps most importantly, Hunt is actually right about one thing: weekend care is not good enough. As inane as Hunt’s ‘solutions’ are, there is a real problem here. Virtually every young doctor I have spoken to about weekend support has felt that it is simply not good enough and that weekends are frequently stressful and unworkable. It is disingenuous of doctors to pretend otherwise suddenly. The politicisation of these issues has rendered doctors unable to take virtually any criticism of hospital care, no matter how reasonable it may be.
The root problem, I suspect, is an exaggeration of sympathy. Doctors have stressful lives with fairly long hours, and we don’t get paid anywhere near as much as most people think. But high-achieving jobs go with high standards and high confidence. Some doctors have manufactured a worrying sense of self-importance because of this. Many have convinced themselves that they are the most indispensable, hard-working, altruistic people in the country – that being a doctor is impossible without exceptional quantities of these traits.
This is simply not true. In return for their stressful and long hours, doctors surely have one of the highest job satisfactions of any profession. We enjoy wonderful status among society outside of work, and we get paid a hell of a lot more than equally hard-working people who struggle to make ends meet. So if you don’t quite sympathise with our plight, I don’t blame you.
Calum Miller is a junior doctor in Greater Manchester.