Thursday, July 19, 2012

Standing up for more than a Principle

The medical profession is not usually considered to be a militant organisation. Frequently  coming high on the list of those members of society who the public holds to be honest, reliable and worthy of respect, doctors are generally considered to have a learned and caring vocation, whose voice is willing listened to with politeness and interest, even if only out of curiosity. In turn, the profession usually recognises and appreciates this esteemed status and, through the General Medical Council’s code of conduct, does much to ensure that the public trust is not undermined.  

That today, the 21st June 2012, has been declared a day of industrial action by doctors is therefore of great significance. Of course, ‘industrial action’ is not necessarily the same as a ‘strike’; but the mere fact that it is happening at all is of great importance, with all the implications that it has to threaten the aforementioned public good-will.

The official reason given for the industrial action is the Government’s recent action in respect to the NHS pension scheme; action which effectively renegades on negotiations and an agreement in 2008 which was supposed to ensure the future viability of the pension scheme. Be that as it may, there is much more behind the situation than is immediately apparent. However, before I expand on the unwitting testimony, it is worth clarifying a few misconceptions that the Government is keen to promulgate.

First, the NHS pension scheme is not funded by the tax payer. The scheme is supported by its members; the doctors, nurses, ancillary staff and administrators who make the NHS work. The ultimate pension is in effect deferred pay, and has historically been on decent terms in recognition of the lower pay and substantial good-will of health workers; many of whom spend years of arduous training and contribute many unpaid hours to the good of society.

Second, is the fact that the NHS pension scheme currently returns a surplus of around £2billion per year to the Government; money that the Government then happily puts into the general coffers. Despite this, the Government argues that the situation is not sustainable and that, with the rising number of retired members, the scheme will not be able to support itself in future. However, that is what the negotiations of 2008 were all about. At that time, the medical profession, along with most healthcare workers, willing worked with the Government to bring about changes which would secure the inherent viability of the scheme and avoid it becoming a drain on the tax-payer. Nothing has changed since then to undermine those calculations; not even the change in the economy. Instead, the Government is set on unashamedly fleecing the NHS pension scheme whilst hiding behind flawed arguments and shameless lies, and that is what has angered the medical profession.           

Nonetheless, the institutionalised theft of people’s pensions is only the final straw of the unbearable load that has broken this particular camel’s back. As a body, doctors are tired of successive Governments meddling with the NHS, introducing badly thought-through policies, ignoring the profession’s opinion, increasing the workload to unsustainable levels whilst inappropriately raising public expectation of what should be achievable, and then publicly blaming the doctors for when it all goes horribly wrong. The profession is exhausted by inflated demands, frustrated by the focus on irrelevant outcome measures, weary of being the scapegoat, and demoralised by the determined destruction of the NHS. The theft of people’s hard-earned pensions is just a small part of this Government-built mountain of unrest.  

Today, for the first time in almost 40 years, some doctors will stop doing routine work for 24 hours. Urgent patient care will continue, and no patient should suffer as a consequence. That said, many of us will carry on as normal, strongly supportive of the need for action, but unable to put our own well-being ahead of those we have trained to help and serve. No doubt the Government will again ignore us and the popular press will vilify us. However, the population as a whole should take note. When a venerable profession is moved to such extremes, there is something very wrong with our world in general and its politicians in particular.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 21st June 2012.)

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