Over the course of the last few months, we have seen junior doctors in the United Kingdom take part in industrial action, striking as a result of new contracts brought into force by the government.
Essentially this is a dispute over pay and working hours with doctors stating that they will be expected to work longer hours for less pay.
Some say that the UK’s junior doctors are wilfully allowing patients to come to harm by joining in the industrial action whilst other say that this is the only way in which they can hope to be able to work under a more reasonable contract with better terms and that such a change for the better will long-term result in better patient safety.
The British Medical Association (the BMA) is supporting junior doctors in relation to the industrial action to be taken and has, in fact, launched judicial review proceedings against the government challenging the lawfulness of the decision of the Health Secretary to impose the new contract.
So far, junior doctors have taken the following industrial action:
- 12 January – junior doctor provided emergency care only for a period of 24 hours
- 10 February – junior doctors provided emergency care only for a period of 24 hours
- 9 and 10 March – junior doctors provided emergency care only on both days
- 6 and 8 April – junior doctors provided emergency care only on both days
Next week, however, on 26 and 27 April junior doctors have planned an all out strike which means that they will not be providing emergency, or any other, care.
So, is this just a normal industrial dispute with the BMA seeking better working terms and conditions for its members by withdrawing the work force from the work place? Or is it different by virtue of the fact that patient safety may be compromised by an all out strike like the nature of that next week? What does it mean for junior doctors who decide to strike in this manner when they consider their obligations and duties as set out in General Medical Council (GMC) Guidance, Good Medical Practice?
Up until now the GMC, the regulatory body for doctors practising in the UK, had had very little to say on the subject of the industrial action. However on 19 April 2016, it issued advice in relation to the planned industrial action and made it clear that, whilst it accepts that junior doctors feel frustrated, undervalued and alienated, this is something that extends beyond the current dispute over pay and conditions. The GMC stated that whilst this needs to be addressed, junior doctors should think about the implications of their actions in taking part in the proposed industrial action and issued advice to those thinking of participating.
The GMC, whilst not being able to comment on contractual arrangements in which it is not involved, stated “we ask every doctor contemplating further and escalated industrial action to pause and consider again the possible implications for patients, not only in terms of the immediate action but also in terms of the cumulative impact on patients and the additional risk posed by the withdrawal of emergency cover.”
It would appear therefore, that the doctor’s regulator believes that the proposed industrial action will have a negative impact on patient safety, one of the fundamental tenets of this organisation’s existence.
The GMC went on to state that “given the scale and repeated nature of what is proposed…despite everyone’s best efforts, some hospitals may struggle to cope. In these cases where local circumstances are particularly acute, the right option may be not to take action that results in the withdrawal of services for patients.” It does not, however, identify the ‘local circumstances’ it describes.
The GMC also issued advice for those doctors who decide to take part in the industrial action as follows:
- Take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves about the arrangements being made during the period during which they will not be working;
- Engage constructively and at an early stage with those planning for the care of patients during the industrial action to ensure the protection of patients;
- Reminded doctors of their responsibilities in relation to continuity and coordination of care and for the safe transfer of patients between teams;
- Asked junior doctors to return to work if they were asked to do so in the event that it becomes clear during the industrial action that patients are at risk in a local area because of inadequate medical cover;
- In the event of an emergency, the GMC interestingly stated “we know that doctors in training will always come forward”;
- Explained the crucial importance of junior doctors being contactable and available to help in the event that contingency plans put into place as a result of the planned industrial action become overwhelmed.
It remains to be seen whether or not this all-out strike will take place but the BMA has made it clear that if the contracts for junior doctors is not withdrawn by the Health Secretary then this planned industrial action will take place and no doubt, further strikes will ensue.
If you are a junior doctor wishing to fight for your rights but also feeling afraid about the consequences of your actions, please do get in touch on 0161 827 9500 and one of our specialist healthcare lawyers will discuss your case with you and explain what you will need to do following the advice issued by the GMC.