Fat Sister is a doctor. She’s been one for the last six years, and before that spent six years at medical school. Her whole adult life has been dedicated to medicine.
Anyone who knows Fat Sister will also know that she speaks her mind, has clear political views and cares passionately about her patients and the NHS. They’ll also know that she’s understandably cautious when it comes to sharing her political views publicly on social media.
While I’ve been on many marches and protests in the last five years, Fat Sister usually opts to take a different approach – often because she’s busy working. But this morning she posted on Facebook explaining why as junior doctor she was taking to the streets.
What is a ‘junior doctor’? ‘Junior’ seems to suggest not yet fully-fledged ¬– in fact it means a completely qualified doctor, with all the knowledge and responsibility that goes with that position. A junior doctor is any hospital doctor who hasn’t yet reached consultant level. It’s the equivalent of describing a qualified teacher who’s not yet a head, as “junior teacher”, or a police constable who’s not yet a sergeant a “junior PC”.
Junior doctors are the people who make the difficult decisions in our intensive care units. They’ll be the ones at the hospital who treat your child or your mum in the middle of the night, some junior doctors will be answering frightened relatives’ questions right now, some will be saving lives, and some will be sleeping after long night-shifts.
And today some are using their day off to protest about a new Government-imposed contract that will negatively impact on their lives and the care they’re able to give to all of us.
The Tories deny they’re cutting pay under the new contract and claim the changes will be ‘financially neutral’ for most junior doctors.
But it’s easy to understand why Fat Sister, the British Medical Association and many, many others don’t believe them:
• Currently ‘standard’ working hours for doctors are 7am-7pm, Monday to Friday. This contract wants to redefine standard working hours as 7am-10pm, Monday to Saturday, raising the number of standard hours per week from 60 to 90! This means that Doctors won’t be paid fairly for working unsociable hours at weekends and late into the evening. This in effect would be a pay cut of up to 30%. The basic starting pay for a junior doctor is currently around £23,000. The additional pay they get for evening, night and weekend work makes up a significant amount of their salaries.
• But for many Doctors the most important issue with this new contract is one of safety. The Government argue that it would mean reduced working hours, but at the same time they’re trying to remove the vital safeguards that stop Doctors working dangerously long hours. The BMA explain here why they’re so worried about this.
• Doctors have asked the Cabinet Office to investigate the way the government is using research about death rates at weekends to justify the contract. They accuse Jeremy Hunt of misrepresenting this data and drawing conclusions from it that the authors describe as ‘rash and misleading’.
• The Government accuse their opponents of being misleading, but themselves repeatedly peddle the nonsense that Junior Doctors have an “opt out” on weekend working.
As someone who loves a junior doctor, I’ve seen the relentless hard work that six years at medical school demands. I know the tell-tale signs of yet another breakfast on the move indicating that she’s travelling to another job many miles from home. I’ve known about the worry of having to save up thousands of pounds for compulsory training fees. I know how much I’ve missed her on the Christmases and New Years when she’s been working. I know all too well the exhausted sound of her voice after 48 hours on call. I know that she’s been forced to compromise her career choices because, as well as being a junior doctor, she’s also a carer for me. I know that she rarely leaves work on time, that her patients always come first, and that she worries about them long after she’s left the hospital.
I know that she loves her job. I know that I’m proud of her. And I know that she’s contributing to a healthcare system that is one of the best in the world.
Junior doctors aren’t asking for more money. They’re asking the Government not to impose a contract that’ll mean they have to work even longer hours for the same pay. This is important for all of us because tired doctors are more likely to make mistakes.
I spoke to Fat Sister just before I started writing this, with the sounds of the march in the background. She told me that there was a strong turnout and a determined, passionate atmosphere. She also mentioned that junior doctors are rubbish at chanting – “I think we’re a bit too self-conscious for protest songs.”
After I ended the call my tics offered their own support in this department:
“No ifs, no buts, no inhumane Jeremy Hunt contracts.”
“What do we want? A reasonable bedtime. When do we want it? At least once a week.”
“No cats, no cuts, no Jeremy Hunts.”
I stand in love and solidarity with Fat Sister, with the A&E doctor who put off going to the toilet for three hours while he held my constantly moving body during a ‘ticcing fit’, with the doctors working on Boxing Day 2013 who reassured me as my hands were suddenly gripped by dystonia, with the orthopaedic doctor who took time to learn about Tourettes whilst treating my fractured elbow. And I stand with all those opposing a contract designed to meet the needs of politicians, but not those of patients, doctors or the NHS.