Junior doctors’ strike: can bitter row be solved?

Longest period of NHS industrial action begins with doctors demanding a 35% pay rise

Junior doctors stage protest over pay
Junior doctors began a three-day strike on Monday
(Image credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

The NHS is seeing its longest-ever period of industrial action with tens of thousands of junior doctors joining picket lines across England.

Members of the British Medical Association (BMA) are striking for three days in the “most extensive disruption for the NHS and patients since a wave of industrial action by healthcare workers began in December”, said the Financial Times.

But unlike strike action taken by nurses and ambulance workers, junior doctors have not agreed similar arrangements to maintain emergency and critical cover during walk-outs, leaving hospital chiefs “rushing to maintain services”, said the paper.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The walk-out comes after a ballot of junior doctors by the BMA last month, in which more than three-quarters of members participated, and in which 98% voted to strike and call for a 35% pay increase.

‘Make more serving coffee than serving patients’

On Saturday the BMA “rejected an eleventh-hour offer” from health secretary Steve Barclay to join “formal pay talks on the same basis other health unions accepted”, including calling off this week’s strike, said the FT.

The BMA has argued that junior doctors’ real-terms pay has been cut by 26% since 2008 despite increasing pressure on the profession and soaring waiting lists. The union launched a campaign over the weekend that claimed baristas at Pret a Manger made more per hour than a junior doctor. It said that while the sandwich chain will pay “up to £14.10 per hour” to its staff, a junior doctor “makes just £14.09”.

“Thanks to this government you can make more serving coffee than saving patients,” said the campaign. “This week junior doctors will take strike action so they are paid what they are worth.”

Almost a third of junior NHS doctors now say they are tempted by a move to Australia, which offers “fewer hours” and “50 per cent more pay” as well as “great coffee, great beaches and great weather”, said Dr Matt Morgan in The Spectator.

The NHS is already facing a shortfall of some 12,000 hospital doctors and 50,000 nurses. But “the good news” is that “the haemorrhage of staff can be treated”, said Morgan, as “few people really want to leave their home, their country and their family”.

Yet doctors need to feel “valued and supported by the system. It is imperative that the UK retains its doctors,” added Morgan. “Any health service is, after all, completely and utterly reliant on them.”

‘35% pay increase has raised eyebrows’

But in response to the campaign, government aides have argued that “the average junior doctor earned £55,436 in 2021-22, when counting payments for night and weekend shifts”, reported Politico. Indeed, the argument being put forward by the BMA is “more complicated than the ones put forward by most other unions” and has “raised eyebrows”, said the BBC.

That’s because “no junior doctor has seen pay cut by 26%” since 2008. “There are five core pay points in the junior doctor contract with each a springboard to the next. It means they move up the pay scale over time until they finish their training,” explained the BBC. A junior doctor in 2008 “may well be a consultant now, perhaps earning four times in cash terms what they were then”.

In its editorial today, The Telegraph said: “People may sympathise with the medics, who have seen their real incomes fall in recent years, but they are not alone in that.

“Many whose treatments will be postponed are in the same predicament and are often paid far less than doctors,” added the paper. It argued that the pay rise being sought by the BMA is “ludicrously high at a time when most are having to accept less than the inflation rate”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.