Doctors’ strike – where should the blow fall next?

You can have our SHAs but you’ll never take our free healthcare

Doctors’ strike day went quietly in the end.  Both those who warned it put patients lives at risk and those who claimed it would (safely) draw the nation’s attention to the medical profession’s concerns about the NHS were proved wrong. Most doctors seemed to support the notion that the public needed to know how fed up they were – with their pensions being raided by government not to mention the lack of consultation during the passage of the deeply unpopular Health and Social Care Bill in May. Yet, cometh the day, cometh the doctors’ unshakeable loyalty to their patients.  Some did strike, some never intended to – an awful lot may have voted for action with their heads, but their hearts had other plans when the time came.

So what next? With the election of Dr Mark Porter (the Coventry-based consultant anaesthetist – not Dr Mark Porter, the South Glos GP, medical correspondent at The Times, and presenter of Radio 4’s medical series Inside Health) last Thursday as chair of the ruling council of the British Medical Association (BMA), the organisation that represents 140,000 doctors – about two-thirds of all medics working in the UK, the political landscape will change again.

Porter will lead the BMA for the next three years; his top priority is to either take the union in further industrial action to protest against the pensions overhaul or find a resolution to it through renewed discussions with health secretary Andrew Lansley, who has insisted that doctors will get no concessions in response to their go-slow last week.  Given how little the industrial action did for doctors overall, it is hard to imagine why Dr Porter would call another one.

In this week’s Daily Telegraph, Dr Max Pemberton comes up with an interesting alternative.  He says: ‘There is an alternative though – and one that, I think, would be a PR coup for doctors and would force the Government into negotiations without harming patients. Rather than refusing to do clinical work, the whole medical profession should refuse to engage in bureaucratic work.

‘In practical terms, this is easy: simply don’t go to any meetings or fill in pointless forms used to gather government statistics. GPs would refuse to attend Clinical Commissioning Group meetings, hospital consultants would boycott management meetings and juniors would refuse to complete the ludicrous and byzantine forms that are piled upon us from on high.’

Pemberton’s ploy is cunning and charming at the same time. No one enjoys form-filling. No politician could spin ‘red tape refusniks’ into patient killers.

But there is another way, too.

Rather than voting with their hearts or heads, doctors should vote with, well, their… votes.

There are 218,000 licensed doctors in the UK with many thousands in training. There are about 650,000 nurses.  Figures out earlier this year show that the NHS employs more than 1.4 million.

Could we assume that while the 41,000 odd managers aren’t necessarily going to agree, the vast majority of the rest of the NHS staff, including those auxiliaries and cleaners and office staff  – many of whom are amongst the low paid – are not likely candidates to vote Coalition at the next election?

And that since their geographical spread is right across the UK, could, should, would, will Dr Porter (of the Coventry Porters) be using his position to raise an NHS army of voters who may swing the 2015 election?

Oncologist Clive Peedell has already thrown down the gauntlet with the launch of the NHA party, encouraging doctors (and others) to stand for a party committed to bringing back the National Health Service as the single driving entity which most closely expresses what Great Britain stands for as a nation – compassion, kindness, public duty, the prizing of science, the respect for knowledge, the overwhelming sense of fairness that says we don’t make money out of another man’s ills. Read my interview with him here.

But is that the most effective path to take?  Surely it would be more profound to capture the political mood in the NHS, and make a stand with it. Go to Labour, and make a deal: These votes for a formalised retreat on privatisation, a re-launch even of what the NHS could be, tied more tightly to the centre of policy, its Secretary of State made the third most important holder of office after Prime Minister and Chancellor.

Stop turning the health of this nation into the wealth of ‘a nation’ which can be put up for sale, its proceeds poured into creating new quangos and new bureaucracies.  Oh and pockets of multinationals.

It would take a braveheart Dr Porter to leap to the battlements and cry, They can take our Walk In Centres, but they will never take away our Free at the Point of Delivery. To lead not just the doctors who pay the BMA subs, but all the NHS workers. But they could be the swinging vote to end all swing votes.  Forget Worcester Woman and Mondeo Man, it’ll be Healthcare Human, the Coalition will fear.

It’s still all to play for.






About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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