UK doctors begin three-day strike in pay dispute

[2/3] People attend a protest by junior doctors, amid a dispute with the government over pay, outside St Thomas' Hospital in London, Britain, March 13, 2023. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Thousands of junior doctors in England walked out on Monday in three-day strike that will disrupt patient care, as they protest over pay they say can work out at less per hour than a barista.

The strike is the latest involving staff at Britain’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS), following walkouts by nurses, paramedics and others demanding a pay rise that better reflects double-digit levels of inflation.

The NHS will prioritise emergency care during the strike, which could come at the cost of routine appointments, surgeries and even some urgent cancer treatments, NHS England National Medical Director Stephen Powis said.

“This is likely to be the most disruptive set of industrial action days that we’ve seen all winter,” Powis told Times Radio.

“It is going to be a hard three days and it’s going to be quite challenging.”

Junior doctors in Britain are qualified physicians, often with several years of experience.

The British Medical Association (BMA) trade union says starting pay for junior doctors can be as low as 14.09 pounds ($17.04) per hour, one pence less than the top level of pay for a barista at British coffee chain Pret A Manger.

Junior doctors agreed in 2019 to an annual 2% pay rise as part of a four-year deal but say that is now inadequate in light of much higher inflation. Last month, 98% of the nearly 37,000 who took part in the BMA’s strike ballot voted in favour.

Robert Laurenson, co-chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee, said they had seen a real terms pay cut over the last 15 years due to public sector wage freezes.

“We’re just asking for that pay to be restored, and that looks like something like 19 pounds an hour,” he told Reuters at a picket line in London.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure to help end walkouts by health workers, which also hinder one his major priorities of cutting long waiting lists for treatment.

Health minister Steve Barclay on Friday invited the BMA for formal pay talks.

“We stand ready to have those discussions, and urge them to come and engage with us,” Barclay told reporters on Monday. “I don’t think a 35% pay demand is affordable.”

A broader wave of strikes in Britain, involving hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, comes at a time of pressured public finances and as Sunak’s government prepares to deliver a budget on Wednesday.

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