Comment: If Jeremy Hunt wants to improve the NHS, he should start listening to junior doctors

By Caroline Lucas

Next week, junior doctors will begin voting on whether they feel they must go on strike for the first time in decades. Their decision could lead to industrial action in December – and it's one I know they won't be taking lightly.

This unprecedented action is being reluctantly considered because of the government’s proposed changes to junior doctors’ contracts.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, wants to extend the definition of 'ordinary working hours' to include Saturdays and late working up until 10pm.

The changes could, according to the British Medical Association, mean pay cuts of up to 30% for our junior doctors. And women are likely to be hit hardest as annual pay progression will be scrapped, meaning they will lose out if they take time out to have children – as will any doctor who takes time out to do research.

The changes aren’t just unfair – they could also be unsafe. The British Medical Association notes that the proposed amendments might lead to medics working extra hours to prevent a cut in pay – which could put NHS patients at risk from tired doctors.

Hunt’s proposed changes to their working conditions are part of the drive for a so called '7 day NHS'. That concept is entirely laudable, but it's worth remembering that junior doctors do already work seven days a week (and indeed 24 hours a day) and there is no ability for junior doctors to opt out of weekend services. It is, surely, entirely fair that they should be paid for working antisocial hours.

The BMA has made it clear it is willing to sit down with Hunt for further discussions and to work together to make the NHS the best it possibly can be. But they want him to commit to a contract which protects against working routinely long hours, and that delivers a fair system of pay, values the vital role of training and does not disadvantage those who need to take time out or work flexibly.

Hunt’s refusal to commit to protect doctor’s working conditions, and his threat of imposing these new contracts on them, could end up putting us all at risk by forcing medics out of the NHS.

In a recent survey 2,949 (71.4%) of the 4,129 junior doctors polled said they would move abroad, become a locum or give up medicine altogether if the contract is forced on them next year. I regularly receive emails from doctors referring to colleagues who have left for Australia.

The context of this contract change is one of an NHS teetering on the edge of crisis. Research by the Kings Fund shows that David Cameron is likely to preside over the largest sustained fall in NHS spending as a share of GDP since 1951.

Many of us have long argued that we have already seen cuts dressed up as efficiency savings. The slashing of local government funding means essential local public services that keep vulnerable people safe and well are being cut. 

Last Friday, leading medical, care and local authority organisations wrote to warn George Osborne that cuts of 6.2% to public health will put paid to vital services, like mental health daycare centres, smoking cessation clinics and contraception services.

A quarter of a century of marketisation has left our health service fragmented, inefficient and increasingly vulnerable to being picked off by private providers. It's no wonder that the incredible staff who keep our NHS running are deeply concerned about the future.

Over the coming weeks junior doctors will be thinking long and hard about whether or not to go on strike. I met almost 50 doctors at my constituency surgery earlier this month, and I've heard from many more who have written to me.

They take the Hippocratic Oath seriously – and will do all they can to avoid putting patients at risk – but they are reaching the end of their tether with a government seemingly intent on undermining the work they do. Whether or not they vote to strike, it is crucial those of us who believe in an NHS staffed by motivated and respected professionals rally behind them.

Our NHS is too important for political point-scoring – which is why I urge MPs from across the House of Commons to join together in today's backbench debate to vote to support the junior doctors and by signing the cross-party motion, EDM 539, to put pressure on the government to come to the negotiating table with no preconditions.

Caroline Lucas is a Green party MP.

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