LONDON: Thousands of senior doctors in England began a 48-hour walkout to demand better pay and conditions, paralyzing hospitals and leaving only emergency care covered.
The severe disruptions are the latest in a wave of industrial action by public sector workers amid U.K.’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis. They come just two days after junior doctors went on strike for five days, the longest walkout in the history of the state-funded National Health Service.
Thousands of operations and appointments have been canceled, and health officials say the impact of the latest round of strikes to hit the country’s public health system is likely to be the biggest yet because almost no work can be done at hospitals unless it’s supervised by a senior doctor.
Senior doctors, known as consultants in the U.K., will only be “on call” for urgent work such as critical cancer care until Saturday morning.
The Conservative government has offered a 6% pay increase to the doctors, but the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union known as the BMA, called this “derisory.” It said doctors have seen real-term take-home pay fall by more than a third over the last 14 years, and accused authorities of refusing to engage in negotiations on pay.
Union executive Dr. Vishal Sharma said that many in his profession felt “undervalued and overworked.”
“Consultants will stand on the picket lines today, because we are angry and at rock bottom. We never wanted to be forced into taking this huge step,” Sharma said. “Ministers have done absolutely nothing to stop this action taking place.”
Psychiatrist Polly Christodoulou, who joined the picket line outside a hospital in south London, said that many colleagues have left for the private sector or to other countries such as Australia, because the wages offered are far better.
“A lot of us have trained for 15-years-plus to get to where we are and that is not being valued,” she said. “I want to be able to stay and support the NHS, but it is becoming more and more difficult.”
The BMA says senior doctors on a 2003 contract earn a starting salary of about 88,300 pounds ($113,453), rising to around 119,100 pounds after about 20 years. Doctors argue that their wages have fallen behind that of other highly-trained professionals such as lawyers.
Nurses, junior doctors and emergency health care workers have all joined public sector strikes in recent months to demand better pay to cope with soaring food, energy and housing costs. Inflation in the U.K. stood at 7.9% in June, down from double digits earlier in the year, but it’s still far higher compared to other Group of Seven economies.
Even before the strikes, the National Health Service, a beloved British institution that began life in 1948, was already under huge pressure, stretched by a dwindling workforce, huge backlogs and funding gaps.
Hospital executives have warned that the labor disputes could cost billions of pounds, and that unions and officials must reach a deal soon to end the impasse.
Meanwhile, rail workers also staged a further round of strikes Thursday, as a long-running pay dispute dragged on and brought new travel disruption for commuters and travellers.
The latest walkouts came as a bill aimed at curbing the impact of strikes became law on Thursday. The law will allow officials to impose minimum service levels during industrial action by essential workers, including paramedics, firefighters and rail workers.
The law had faced strong opposition from unions and opposition parties, which say it takes away the fundamental right to strike from many workers.
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