The anger felt by junior doctors in England has reached boiling point. Still embroiled in a bitter dispute with the government over the terms and conditions of a contract that is to be imposed on them this August, they have just completed 2 days of strike action. If the government does not take the time to listen to their concerns that no new funding will be available to prevent the same workforce from carrying out routine NHS work over 7 days instead of 5, another 4 days of strike action is on the cards.
You might think that getting involved in politics is not the game plan of those in the public eye but to the considerable surprise of doctors, the response has been monumental.
In November last year, four well-known actors decided to step up to plate and put their support behind junior in opposing the junior doctor contract. Michael Sheen stated that junior doctors had his support for a contract that is being "imposed upon them by the Health Secretary". Martin Freeman said "I want to throw my weight behind the junior doctor campaign" to "keep our NHS safe". Robert Lindsay stated that junior doctors "work tirelessly" and that the "government have to keep their hands off the NHS... you have my support and my whole family's support...we support the National Health Service. We support you". Peter Capaldi described the NHS as "one of the wonders of the world"; that the junior doctor contract represented an "attacks on junior doctors" and that "the new contract is going to run them into the ground". Rufus Hound also spoke out for junior doctors at a rally the same month at Manchester Cathedral in Salford. It may not then be a coincidence that this coincided with the government agreeing to re-start of negotiations with the British Medical Association.
With talks stalling again, in spite of claims from the government that considerable progress had been made on 15 of the 16 areas of disagreement, the effect was a renewed effort to engage the public, with a need for them to be aware that protecting the NHS was at the heart of the contract dispute. The 'Wear Your NHS' campaign was started by Dr Lauren Gavaghan, who asked Dame Vivienne Westwood to help junior doctors in a campaign for a fair contract that would also be safe for patients. The result was a T-shirt that also helped to promote the campaign in a series of posters by the actor Peter Capaldi, with the tagline 'Don't let spin doctors exterminate the NHS'. Supporters were encouraged to Instagram or Tweet photos of themselves wearing the shirts with the hashtag #wearyournhs and upload them to the campaign site. Proceeds from the sale of T-shirts will be donated to medical charities.
We all probably thought that would be the end of it. How wrong we were. As the dispute grew apace, other celebrities showed their feelings. JK Rowling tweeted "Standing with the #juniordoctors, protesting the Tories" #juniorcontract today!" Alastair Campbell said on Twitter "Junior doctors have been driven to this point by the intransigence, misrepresentation and neglect of government".
That wasn't the end of it. There was a grand finale. In a television show The Last Leg, Sue Perkins launched a tirade of strong emotions, saying "What possible causes deaths is giving junior doctors contracts where they have to work 13 hour shifts, have a day off and straight back on it for 2 days straight. Meanwhile the tabloid newspapers are running them down, humiliating them, making all their education and their brilliance go for nothing and the fact that these people at the end of that long working week, are placed with our lives in their hands. That is what could potentially kill people and that is why everyone should support junior doctors". On Russell Howard's Good News, the comedian described junior doctors as "...amazing selfless human beings. They work ridiculous hours, saving lives. Junior doctors need our help.... it doesn't take a genius to work out that tired doctors make mistakes".
The best is still to come. On the most well-known London talk station LBC James O'Brien would not let the matter rest, posing the question "Why do we demonise doctors?" The monologue was truly remarkable. "Doctors have to pay the price of the financial bail-outs", he shouted. "Doctors now have to shoulder the responsibility of economic improvement" Only a few days ago, he rubbished the negative stories about doctors, singling out newspapers in their "Look over there,doctors being bad!" approach journalism, where the demonisation drew attention to '...blundering doctors with their blundering ways and ludicrous, dodgy stethoscopes". Mr O'Brien finished with a barnstorming attack on the government. "Almost every Junior Doctor in the land has voted for strike action which is happening today. The numbers they got in response to that strike ballot would only really look familiar in North Korea, such is the scale of support for that strike. He ended with a sense of relief that "The public, for once, have refused to swallow it".
Current public support for what has now become a protracted dispute, is still strong. Recent polls from Sky and ITV show almost overwhelming public support for junior doctors. A poll by one newspaper found that 93% of people put the blame for the dispute, firmly at the feet of the government.
Have celebrities made a difference to public opinion? They probably have and the episode is far from over.