Tens of thousands of doctors went on a three-day strike in England on Monday, kicking off widespread disruption of the UK’s state funded hospitals and health clinics.
The doctors are demanding better pay. The trade union British Medical Association has asserted pay for junior doctors—those in the early years of their careers—has fallen 26% in real terms since 2008, while workload and patient waiting lists are at record highs. The union says burnout, along with the UK’s cost-of-living crisis, are driving scores of doctors away from the public health service. According to the union, newly qualified medics earn just over 14 pounds, or $17, an hour.
Inflation in the UK, meanwhile, hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October, driven by sharply rising energy and food costs, before easing slightly to an annual 10.1% in January.
Junior doctors make up 45% of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), and their work stoppage will lead to thousands of canceled patient appoints. Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said the 72-hour strike is expected to cause “extensive disruption,” noting that some cancer care will likely be affected. Senior doctors and other medics have had to be drafted into service to cover emergencies, critical care and maternity treatments.
UK nurses and ambulance workers have held their own strikes in recent months. In January thousands of British nurses walked off the job for 12 hours in a protest over pay, a week after 25,000 UK ambulance workers held their second strike in as many months.
NHS figures show that more than 100,000 appointments have already been postponed this winter as a result of the nurses’ strikes.
The doctors’ strike this week coincides with mass walkouts by tens of thousands of teachers and civil servants set to take place on Wednesday, the day the government unveils its latest budget statement. And it follows scores of other strikes over pay by workers in Britain’s public sector this year, including train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving examiners, bus drivers and postal workers.
Here in the U.S., the Labor Department reported in February that more than 120,000 U.S. workers went on strike or stopped working in 2022, a 50% increase from 2021.
This year, following a three-day strike in January by some 7,000 nurses at two New York City hospital systems, nurses across the U.S. warned that it’s just a matter of time before they and other frontline hospital workers walk the picket line.
For U.S. healthcare workers, the issue of staffing levels in the wake of the Covid pandemic has been more of a strike driver than pay levels.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters on Sunday it was “disappointing that the junior doctors’ union are not engaging with the government.” The union countered that officials have refused to engage with their demands for months, and that a recent invitation to talks came with “unacceptable” preconditions.