At midnight tonight, doctors working in the NHS will begin a twenty-four hour period of industrial action in protest of changes to the NHS pension scheme.
I, not-quite-graduated-yet and not-quite-registered-yet and not-actually-working-now-anyway and not-really-a-doctor-yet, am in the privileged position of not having had to decide whether to take industrial action. I don’t quite know how I feel about it. I support those who have made the decision to take industrial action, a decision that I know nobody has made lightly. But I don’t know how I would have voted if I’d been balloted and I don’t know what I’d have chosen to do tomorrow if I’d had to choose. It feels like a cop-out, but I find myself relieved that this is happening now and not three months from now.
There is a part of me that says that doctors work hard to get their jobs and then work hard once they’re in those jobs. The same part of me says that the NHS pension scheme was already renegotiated in 2008, supposedly to see through my generation, and worries that this might be the beginning of reform on top of reform on top of reform and wonders whether my pension will have been renegotiated into unrecognisability by the time I actually need it. A small and spiteful part of me says that George Osborne and Andrew Lansley don’t seem to be rushing to reform their own pensions. And all of that is at war with the working class roots that remind me that my projected retirement income even from a reformed pension scheme would be generous to the point that, right now, I wouldn’t really know what to do with it. (Well, pay off the £60,000 debt that I got into in order to qualify for an entry-level job in this profession. But I concede that that is probably beside the point.)
However, the fact that I seem to be determinedly fence-sitting over the whole issue doesn’t stop me from being angry with the fallacy, legend, and scare-tactics that have been dished out on this subject over the last few weeks. I feel quite strongly that if you choose to have an opinion, that that opinion ought not to be based on half-truths and lies peddled to you by tabloid columnists.
So, let’s clear up a few things.
First, it isn’t a strike. Quoting from the Telegraph on 2nd June: “Doctors have voted to go on strike on June 21. Their union, the British Medical Association (BMA), insists that the “industrial action” – that’s their term…” Well, there’s no need to get all passive-aggressive about a legal distinction. Legally, this is action-short-of-a-strike. I know nobody who isn’t going into work tomorrow. If a doctor works in an emergency department or in acute care, they will proceed with their business as normal. The same applies for any ward doctor, for anyone working in oncology or in palliative care, for any surgeon scheduled for a non-elective theatre list, for anyone who is in any way considered to be on call. GP practices are open and GPs will see sick patients. A bleep will not go unanswered and the emergency buzzer will not be ignored. A patient is more likely to see a doctor tomorrow than they are on any given Saturday. Does that sound like a strike to you?
The anti-doctor argument that I keep seeing on the Internet this week is that doctors ought not to be taking industrial action because doctors are supposed to be altruistic. I think when people say that doctors are supposed to be altruistic, what they really mean is that doctors aren’t supposed to be in it for the money, which is fair enough, so far as it goes, but to listen to the angry-people-on-the-Internet-and-the-telly (which is very different from the general public, even though that was what I was going to write), we should be taking that to ridiculous extremes. I’m not in it for the money (just ask my bank manager), but I wouldn’t do the job for free and I wouldn’t pay contributions to a pension fund that I wasn’t getting anything out of. I’m very lucky in that this has happened before I’ve had to decide whether to sign up to the NHS pension scheme and perhaps that’s why I’m not sure if I, personally, would have taken industrial action over this specific reform, but that doesn’t mean that I’d never take industrial action over anything. I mean, there’s altruism and then there’s stupidity.
Victoria Coren, who made a magnificent and impassioned defence of the medical profession on Question Time, said this on Twitter this week: “The thing about mugging is, sometimes you just have to hand over your wallet. But when a guy takes a stand, don’t call him greedy.”
But one of the things I said I’m angry about is the scare-tactics that have been being peddled about what will really be happening tomorrow, and that was my point — whatever your opinion is about doctors or pensions or the BMA and whether you think that what is happening tomorrow is the right thing or the wrong thing or being done for the wrong reasons. There is no picket line tomorrow. There are no doctors calling in sick. The hospitals are fully staffed, more fully staffed than they were over the Jubilee weekend. The effect that this will have on patients is minimal and safe. In an online newspaper this week, a contributor acknowledged that they are aware that there will be no actual harm done by 24 hours of a non-strike but said that that isn’t really the point — harm has already been done, they said, because it has caused anxiety.
But if journalists are going to talk about anxiety caused industrial action, then I think that when this is all over and patient safety wasn’t compromised and the worst thing to come out of it was fear, it will be only fair for those journalists to take responsibility for being the ones who have caused the bulk of that fear.