Hundreds of junior doctors have been joined by other health professionals, patients’ groups and members of the public in a mass protest over “unsafe and unfair” changes to contracts.
Medics from across Yorkshire and beyond gathered in Victoria Gardens, on The Headrow in Leeds, tonight (Wednesday) in a show of defiance at moves to enforce new arrangements next year.
They brandished placards, chanted and heard from a range of speakers opposed to health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans.
Anaesthetist Phil Atkinson, who lives in Bramhope, was one of the organisers of the event.
He said: “We are united in our belief that the new contract being imposed on us is unsafe for patients and unfair on doctors. That is why we urge the government to drop its preconditions and allow real negotiations that will create a safe and workable contract.”
“When I go to work I do everything in my power to ensure that patients receive the best possible standards of care, as do my colleagues. It is this passion that explains why thousands of doctors are descending on Leeds city centre this evening to protest a contract they see as unsafe for their patients and a threat to the future of the NHS.”
The protest is one of a series of rallies being held across the country as junior doctors – those below consultant level – fight their corner over the proposed contract changes, which could be imposed from August 2016.
Central to the dispute is the move to increase the number of hours which are classed as normal working hours.
At the moment junior doctors are paid “standard” time for working 7am-7pm Monday to Friday and extra for antisocial hours.
Hunt wants to reclassify standard hours as 7am-10pm Monday to Saturday, which critics say could see some facing a 30 per cent pay cut.
The British Medical Association (BMA) argues the changes will mean doctors could be forced to work longer shifts – jeopardising patient safety – as existing safeguards which limit their hours are removed.
The association refused to re-enter negotiations over the contracts last month.
Such public protests by doctors are relatively rare – the last time they took to the streets was over post-graduate training reform in 2007.
Speaking before the protest, Johann Malawana, chair of the British Medical Association’s junior doctor committee, said tonight’s protest was a sign of the strength of feeling among doctors.
Dr Malawana said the contract changes would leave Yorkshire’s hospitals struggling to cope as dissatisfied doctors left the country in droves.
He said: “Especially in regions such as Yorkshire and other areas of the North of England, the problem is that you don’t need to have many junior doctors decide to leave a particular city to go to New Zealand or Canada for the NHS to become effectively undeliverable.
“It’s already teetering on the brink. There’s so little capacity. Even a small number of doctors leaving because of the contracts that they are trying to impose on them has an impact. If even 5% say they’re going, then that’s it, the whole thing is over. We have got to see the bigger picture.
“Imagine the waiting times in A and E, which is staffed by junior doctors, then imagine the waiting times if you don’t have the staff. That’s how it will effect people.”
Tonight’s rally won support from MPs across Yorkshire.
Leeds East MP Richard Burgon (Lab) told doctors: “It’s simply not right that the Conservative Government’s approach to you has been aggressive, hostile and unreasonable.
“This dispute is not about delivering a ‘seven day health service’, as the Government claims. We all know this already exists in our hospitals.
“This dispute is about the Government’s attempts to worsen working conditions and introduce reductions in pay. And, what is more, the Government is attempting to impose these changes without agreement – ignoring the very reasonable concerns of NHS staff.”
Rachael Maskell, Labour MP for York Central, said: “I am in no doubt that junior doctors are being used to lever in cuts to all NHS staff. Just because you are in the frontline of this next fight, it doesn’t mean that the army of 1.4million NHS workers aren’t behind you – they are.
“The action that you are taking to stand up for patients, the NHS’s future and your own terms and conditions, pay and wellbeing will set the pace for what is to follow.”
She added: “When men and women use their power to fight for what is just – anything can happen. You are an army of professionals who fight for the lives of your patients every hour of every day – Jeremy Hunt is just one person who knows nothing of what you do. Be strong, fight and let’s save the NHS together.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Junior doctors work incredibly hard and, as we have consistently said, we want to reward them fairly while ensuring that patients get proper seven-day care.
“We have already given absolute assurances that we are not going to save a penny from the junior doctors’ paybill, and will reduce the number of hours doctors are asked to work. As many Royal Colleges have urged, the best way forward is for the BMA to come back to the negotiating table.”