UK Strikes Persist as Senior Doctors Stage 2-Day Walkout

UK doctors and rail workers are embarking on a fresh round of strikes, continuing months of damaging industrial action that’s hobbled public services and hurt the UK economy.

(Bloomberg) — UK doctors and rail workers are embarking on a fresh round of strikes, continuing months of damaging industrial action that’s hobbled public services and hurt the UK economy.

Senior doctors in England started a two-day walkout at 7 a.m. on Thursday, prolonging a dispute over pay that their union, the British Medical Association, argues has suffered more than a decade of real-terms cuts. 

Before their action ends, some 20,000 rail workers with the RMT union will strike over pay and conditions, affecting 14 train operators from just after midnight on Saturday morning.

The twin strikes illustrate the ongoing headache Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces in trying to draw a line under the UK’s worst period of worker unrest since the late 1980s, while also clamping down on rising prices. 

Sunak has argued that excessive pay deals will only fuel inflation that at 6.8% is still running at more than three times the official target.

The timing of the rail strike is also particularly disruptive for holidaymakers, coming at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend. It will hamper journeys for festival-goers traveling to Edinburgh, Reading and Leeds, with the Rail Delivery Group — representing train companies — warning that timetables are likely to start later and finish earlier than usual on Saturday.

“In some areas only around half of train services will run, while other parts of the country will have fewer or even no services at all,” the RDG said on its website.  

The RMT plans another strike on Sept. 2, with another rail union, Aslef, due to take action a day earlier. 

The unions have also accused the government of meddling in negotiations late last year. While a deal was reached with National Rail, who operate the train tracks, the dispute with train companies remains in deadlock, with the unions saying they’ve not had negotiations in months.

Sunak had sought to draw a line under the industrial action with a series of pay awards to public sector workers — including a 6% raise for doctors — in July. 

While the BMA “accepts” senior doctors earn more than the average worker, the UK cost of living crisis “has hit everyone,” the union’s Consultants Committee Chair Vishal Sharma told Bloomberg on Thursday. He argued consultants’ pay is down by over a third from 14 years ago, when adjusted for inflation. 

“That’s really having a huge impact on recruitment and retention,” Sharma said in an interview at a picket line in London. With 50% to 60% of hospital departments having vacancies, “that’s having a real impact, not only on patient care, but on the pressures that we face day to day as we try to plug these gaps,” he said.

Some 30 consultants had gathered at the picket line on a rainy morning outside the main entrance of University College Hospital, as passing London buses sounded their horns in solidarity. Some had children and pet dogs, and they held placards which read “fix consultant pay now and for the future” and “consultant take-home pay has fallen by over a third over the last 14 years.”

Industrial action has been damaging for the National Health Service, which has been hit by strikes by junior doctors, their senior colleagues known as consultants, and nurses. Strikes have led to delays for almost 840,000 hospital appointments so far, and NHS Providers, which speaks for health trusts, estimates the walkouts have cost the NHS an estimated £1 billion ($1.3 billion).

The action by senior doctors can be particularly disruptive because their junior colleagues can’t cover for them in the same way that they are able to step in when junior doctors are on strike. They held their first ever England-wide walkout in July, leading to 60,000 appointments being canceled.

In the absence of any further negotiations with the government, the BMA is planning further action in September and three consecutive strike days in October, marking the longest period of industrial action by consultants to date. 

That’s a threat to Sunak’s pledge to get NHS waiting lists down, one of five core promises he’s told voters to judge him by. 

“The waiting lists we have are not because of the strikes,” said Sharma. The waiting lists were the highest on record before the pandemic and the pandemic made it even worse. But this is an ongoing problem because the government is not investing in the NHS properly, it’s not investing in its staff, and that’s why we have a workforce crisis.”

When making the pay awards last month, Sunak said there would be “no more” negotiations “and no amount of strikes will change our decision.” In a statement on Thursday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay doubled down on that message, saying “this pay award is final and I urge the BMA to call an end to strikes.”

The BMA said it’s been 150 days since Barclay last spoke to the union — a gap in the talks that led the health secretary’s Labour opposition counterpart, Wes Streeting to say the ruling Conservatives “have given up any attempt to solve strikes in the NHS.”

Sharma said that future planned strikes will proceed unless the government comes up with a “credible” offer on pay. 

July’s remuneration decisions didn’t cover rail workers, whose pay is set by the train operators. Nevertheless, the government has sought to play a facilitative role in those discussions, and the unions argue that their pay also relies on government funding for the rail network. The RMT in February rejected a deal for pay to rise 5% and 4% in successive years.

–With assistance from Asad Zulfiqar and Eamon Akil Farhat.

(Updates with comments from union chief starting in ninth paragraph.)

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