Junior doctors' five-day strike call was not a mistake, says BMA committee chief


The decision to call five-day doctor strikes - which were then abandoned - was not a mistake, the head of the junior doctors' committee has said.

In her only media interview since strike action was called off, Dr Ellen McCourt told the Press Association junior doctors still had "a range of options" open to them to oppose the new contract, which is being imposed on medics from October 5.

Dr McCourt said each trainee would have to make their own decision whether to sign the contract from next week, and warned that patient safety may be put at risk due to its terms.

Dr McCourt, who chairs the British Medical Association's junior doctors' committee, said the series of five-day strikes were called off after NHS England said the health service would not be able to cope with the scale of the industrial action.

She refused to be drawn on what action the BMA would now take, but insisted medics remain united "on the issues". Some have suggested that doctors may work to rule, while the outcome of Wednesday's legal action by the Justice for Health could have an impact.

Dr McCourt said: "The BMA has not accepted the contract, we remain in dispute around the contract. There are still several outstanding concerns.

"We are looking at a variety of other options - we have not yet released those to our members - but what we need to do is find ways of challenging this at a more local level and using a variety of different methods. We're still looking into them."

She added: "I think there's a variety of ways of getting the contract changed. By suspending industrial action, we are pursuing other avenues. Moving forward, it's likely there will be people working under the contract and even more light will be shed on some of the concerns that we have. The way in which we are resisting the contract has changed, but our problems with the contract remain the same."

She said doctors had to make up their own minds whether to work under the contract from next week.

"If doctors are going to work, they will be working under the imposed contract. However, that does not mean they have consented to that contract, they haven't accepted it. Junior doctors will face that choice (over whether to sign it) on October 5.

"We will not be abandoning our trainees who are moving to work under the imposed contract which they have not accepted. However, it is up to every individual trainee whether they choose to go to work on October 5."

Some junior doctors have vented their fury on social media about the BMA's handling of the contract and strikes, resulting in the rise of several splinter groups.

Asked if she was concerned about splits within the BMA, Dr McCourt said: "I think throughout the last year there have been lots of groups joining together to achieve different aims.

"The Junior Doctors' Alliance are a group that want to spread some of the messages that have come out of the contractual dispute. There are groups of junior doctors who wanted to take industrial action, but we took on board views from junior doctors across England and the overwhelming feedback was that they didn't support taking industrial action because of the impact it was likely to have on patient care."

She said the BMA undertook a wide range of research to check junior doctors' views before calling off the strikes.

"The overwhelming feedback was that they still opposed the contract," she said. "But they didn't feel that - given the response we had from our pre-existing safety mechanisms who told us that, given how fragile the NHS is at the moment, it would be unable to cope with five days of industrial action - trainees didn't feel able to take part. Patient safety is at the front of everything we do.

"We believe that the contract moving forward will be damaging to the workforce - and the consequences may well be that care is damaged for patients - but we didn't want to cause any harm to patients at the moment and so we took the difficult decision to suspend industrial action."

She said Government pressure had led to strike action being called.

"I wouldn't say it was a mistake (to call the strikes)," she said. "The artificial timeline the Government gave us means that trainees are moving on October 5. We had to escalate the industrial action from where we were previously.

"However, when we had feedback from NHS England ...t hey told us 'actually this is very unlikely to be safe'.

"I don't think that prioritising patient safety renders us a weak organisation."

Junior doctors had planned a run of five-day strikes starting in October and running up to Christmas.

Thousands of operations and appointments were cancelled across the NHS following strikes held earlier this year.