That’s the trouble with conducting a strike via social media — press the wrong button and what was supposed to be private becomes very public. A leaked cache of WhatsApp messages has revealed the junior doctors’ strikes for what they were: a politicised dispute which always was about more than the finer details of when doctors would be asked to work and what they would be paid for doing so.
The messages, received by the Health Services Journal, reveal how a drawn-out strike was masterminded by the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee (JDC), a union within a union. The chair of the JDC, Dr Johann Malawana, posed in public as sweet reasonableness all along, declaring in February, for example, that ‘the government can avert this strike action by re-entering talks with the BMA and addressing rather than simply ignoring the outstanding issues and concerns junior doctors have’. Yet in December he had declared privately to his union colleagues that he wanted to draw the dispute out for a ‘prolonged period’ and ‘tie the DH [Department of Health] in knots for the next 18 months’.
As for the talks in January, Dr Malawana suggested that his JDC should take part only ‘to play the political game of always looking reasonable’. While in public the BMA tried to turn the dispute into an issue of safety, the JDC’s private communications revealed that its ‘only real red line’ was refusing to work on Saturdays for the same pay as weekdays.
In other words, the JDC openly and deliberately plotted a drawn-out dispute, and it was only ever about pay, not safety. That they thought they could get away with it without losing public support says much about the high public esteem in which doctors are held. Intermittent polls on the subject never fail to places them as one of the most-trusted professions. Put them up against one of the least-trusted — politicians — and it was a fair guess that the public would always blame the latter.
How much that trust can be sustained when doctors are seen to be represented by a union which looks ever more like Arthur Scargill’s NUM is another matter. If I were a junior doctor I think I would be plotting to do something similar to what the Nottinghamshire Miners did, and set up a rival Union of Democratic Doctors. Either that, or decide that as a professional I didn’t want to be represented by a union at all.