Why Are NHS Junior Doctors Facing Extra Criticism For Striking In January?

Minister Steve Barclay said it was a "political" move from the health service workers.
A junior doctor holds a placard which states 'Tax the rich and fund the NHS' at the picket outside St Thomas' Hospital
A junior doctor holds a placard which states 'Tax the rich and fund the NHS' at the picket outside St Thomas' Hospital
SOPA Images via Getty Images

Junior doctors’ decision to go on strike at the start of January caused alarm in some quarters because it is known as the most difficult time of the year for the NHS.

Junior doctors make up about 50% of doctors working in the NHS, but it is still yet to settle with the government over their public sector pay dispute – they are calling for a 35% pay rise.

Their six-day walkout, the largest in the health service’s history, has faced extra scrutiny because it has coincided with the busiest time of the year for the NHS – the first week of January.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay, former health secretary, said on Thursday: “It’s the junior doctors’ BMA committee which has taken this political approach, that’s been calling strikes in the busiest week of the year for patients, the hardest time for the NHS to deal with these strikes.”

The BMA, the British Medical Association, is the union leading these strikes.

But why is January considered a “political” time for a strike?

Louise Stead, chief executive of Royal Surrey, the NHS Foundation Trust, explained to the Today programme that there were three main reasons the period after Christmas and New Year is particularly trying.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, she said: “What you find is people have mixed more with larger groups, you have higher infections with flu and Covid coming back through – I think there’s nearly 1,000 people in hospitals with flu across the NHS.

“We’re also seeing increased sickness among our staff.”

She then suggested it wasn’t just the increased social mixing which saw more people referring themselves to the NHS.

Stead explained: “And what you quite often find is that people have seen friends and relatives after Christmas who they haven’t seen for a little while, particularly elderly relatives.

“They’ve noticed how they’ve declined and they’re encouraging them to go and see health care. So this is why you always see this big push after Christmas and New Year.”

However, she said hospitals have been planning for the six-day walkout, and all emergency services are covered.

In her hospital, she said out-patient appointments have been cancelled along with non-cancer operations – although rearranging these adds “an administrative burden”.

NHS chiefs have made it clear that this strike will have a serious impact on the health service.

NHS national medical director professor Sir Stephen Powis said in an NHS England press release: “This January could be one of the most difficult starts to the year the NHS has ever faced.”

He said the health service was therefore “starting 2024 on the back foot” and it would have a “serious impact in the weeks after as we recover services and deal with additional demand”.


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