'People used to clap': Why striking junior doctors are so fed-up

Thousands of medics are taking part in a four-day walkout that began on Tuesday, protesting a real-terms cut in wages of 26.1%

Watch: Junior doctors are on strike for a second day

They work 80-hour weeks, have seen their pay massively cut and are in the middle of their biggest-ever strike action,

But speaking to junior doctors on the picket line outside an east London hospital during the March strikes there was a palpable sense of frustration that not enough people seem to care.

Not enough people who decide what the news is, anyway.

Read more: Who is on strike today?

Tens of thousands of medics are taking part in a four-day walkout that begins on Tuesday and will end oof Saturday, protesting what the British Medical Association estimates is a real-terms cut in wages of 26.1%, taking inflation into account, as well as what they describe as "unsustainable" working conditions.

But despite previous BMA picket lines seeing widespread support from the public and an overwhelming number of medics voting in favour of the walkout, doctors told Yahoo News UK they feel they are fighting a "well-oiled machine" during the strike.

Junior doctors hold placards as they demonstrate outside Downing Street, in London, Monday, March 13, 2023. Thousands of junior hospital doctors are due to walk out for three days starting Monday. It follows strikes in recent months by nurses and ambulance staff. The NHS said it would prioritize emergency care during the strike but thousands of appointments will be canceled. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Junior doctors demonstrate outside Downing Street demanding better pay and conditions. (AP)

One doctor on the picket line at Whipps Cross Hospital said: "It hasn't cut through in the media so far. The intention is to keep the pressure on and hopefully the government will negotiate."

"I think the government essentially has become incredibly efficient at playing the media game and that's their entire purpose it seems to me, to have control of the narrative," he added. "We're fighting a well-oiled machine."

If many doctors were expecting the strike to be plastered over the front pages of the newspapers during the last strike, they were sorely mistaken.

While the Daily Star and the i gave the issue some prominence, elsewhere there was greater concern with the latest twist in the Gary Lineker saga.

The i and the Daily Star newspapers were notable exceptions in the lack of coverage of the largest ever junior doctors strike on Tuesday morning. (Yahoo News UK)
The i and the Daily Star newspapers were notable exceptions in the lack of coverage of the largest ever junior doctors strike on Tuesday morning. (Yahoo News UK)

The government has said it wants to "find a fair settlement" with junior doctors but is refusing to negotiate until strike action is paused, which the BMA has refused.

The four-day walkout has raised concerns about patient safety because it comes at the end of a long weekend so the knock-on effects could last for up to 11 days, with 47,600 junior doctors going on strike during the week and up to 250,000 operations being cancelled over the dispute.

"The lack of investment in wages by the government has made it harder to recruit and retain junior doctors," the BMA said.

"If junior doctors are forced out of the NHS because of poor pay and conditions, the services we all rely on to look after our loved ones will suffer."

However, doctors appear to have the support of the public and insist patient safety is already at risk over chronic understaffing and high levels of stress that are forcing many out of the profession altogether.

"From standing here, we get lots of (cars) beeping, so it feels like we have a lot of public support. But looking at articles in the media that have been written saying we don't deserve a pay rise... or people trying to explain – there's all this misinformation," said paediatric doctor Sophie Croft.

"It's difficult because I know there are people at home reading that and thinking, 'Well, why are they getting a pay rise?' And it's disappointing when people are clapping for us one day and saying 'You're all amazing, thank you for helping' and then the next saying 'Go away, we don't care about you'."

While the government has pledged to give medical staff a 3% pay rise after recognising the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, junior doctors were not part of the salary increase because they're part of a separate multi-year pay agreement.

As well as pay complaints, doctors said their working conditions were making hospitals less safe for patients – sharing stories of understaffing, daily unpaid overtime and numerous staff leaving the NHS altogether over the ongoing issues.

People gather in London, Saturday March 11, 2023, ahead of a Support the Strikes march in solidarity with nurses, junior doctors and other NHS staff following recent strikes over pay and conditions. (James Manning/PA via AP)
People gather for a Support the Strikes march in solidarity with nurses, junior doctors and other NHS staff on Saturday. (James Manning/PA via AP)

"People are leaving the NHS. I run the rota in the paediatric department and we have loads of gaps, we have to fill it with locums, which is more expensive, or we have gaps," Dr Croft said.

"We have people leaving to go to Australia, working part-time – I'm doing part-time but I still work 40 hours a week. We've had loads of people leave and it means rotas are short but if we were paid better, taken more seriously, and had better working conditions, people would stay."

Read more: Junior doctor on picket line says she missed her grandma's funeral for work

Geriatric doctor Nila Nagarajan told Yahoo News UK: "We're doing 70 hours a week, I went less than full-time and I'm still working more hours than my partner who does a 9-5 job.

"My ultimate worry is the NHS will cease to exist. We can't sustain this and as we leave there will be massive gaps and things will start getting privatised.

"We've just gone from COVID to a backlog and it doesn't seem like things are stopping."

Watch: Thousands of hospital doctors walk out in latest strike

The March strikes came ahead of one of the biggest days of industrial action, on budget day, which has been dubbed 'Walkout Wednesday', when junior doctors went on strike alongside teachers, tube workers, university staff and civil servants.

And while politicians have raised questions about whether there is enough money to pay everyone who is asking for more, Alex, a junior doctor in paediatrics at Whipps Cross Hospital, said the funds were there.

"My message would be everything for everyone – there is enough for everyone," he said. "To do full pay restoration for every junior doctor would cost £1.1bn. We spent £4bn on PPE that didn't even work – we spent £4bn the other day in the MOD for the army.

"The money is there quite frankly, it's just a question of politics and funding and budgeting. The money is there and it's there for everyone."