Today the independent judicial review into the junior doctor contract imposition legality, put forth by the five junior doctors who make up Justice 4 Health, closed.
Justice Greene found in favour of the government, upholding their peculiar defence that Jeremy Hunt never actually imposed a contract, leaving it up to local hospitals to decide if they want the new contract or not. This, despite the fact that Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly hit the ‘nuclear button’ of imposition in TV interviews, parliament and speeches. Here is a quick video with some obvious examples;
As ludicrous as it seems, legally we have told all of this was an ‘irrelevance’ and although the judge suggested Jeremy Hunt could’ve been less ‘ambiguous’, the High Court rules that the contract was never imposed in the first place. News to 54,000 doctors, and no doubt many patients who were adversely affected by strike action against imposition. This final legal clarity prompted the question; if Jeremy isn’t imposing, who is? Well it would seem hospital trusts are imposing , and therefore can we now negotiate directly with them?
NHS Providers quickly tweeted to crush this speculation – they want a nationally agreed contract, and suggest there will be no local negotiations.
This of course follows in the same week that the BMA JDC have decided to suspend further strikes, and instead are now calling a symposium to which they have extended Jeremy Hunt an invite- whether he will turn up or not remains to be seen. Seeing as how he hasn’t turned up to any of SEVEN crisis meetings in the last year at his OWN organisation I’m not holding my breath.
So junior doctors are left with few options. None of them good.
The first question is – do you accept the contract or not?
If doctors accept working under this contract, that still disadvantages women and LTFT workers and still is worryingly untested, then they must actively engage to make it work. This means forming local doctor forum, helping develop easy apps to exception report and challenging behaviour anywhere in the hospital that doesn’t meet the terms of this contract. If things go south, as these early rotas from obstetrics and gynaecology and emergency medicine anecdotally suggest, doctors must be vocal, and the BMA must back it’s members, although their powers may be severely limited.
If you don’t accept thev contract;
You essentially have few options. A lot will depend on how well organised doctors are from this point forward – with the BMA in full retreat this seems unlikely.
- Leave training – the imposition of the new contract is for trainees – going out of programme, into locum work, into research, or even abroad will mean you continue working as a doctor, but you aren’t subject to the terms of the imposed contract. For those at the end of training, finishing up and then moving abroad is a sensible option.
- Try to negotiate locally- whether individually or en masse doctors could offer to stay on the current contract, or organise a mass resignation against rota and contract conditions. Despite the bluster of NHS Providers it seems unlikely that hospitals will force a new, ‘cost-neutral’ contract at the expense of all their doctors. That is contingent of course on Health Education England, the training body of doctors, not imposing the contract by the back door and pulling funding for trainees who do not comply with the new contract.
- Offer your own contract. This isn’t as mad as it sounds – making a counter offer is a standard employment arrangement in most industries, just unheard of in the NHS. A contract that doesn’t discriminate against women, pays for study and has fair and safe rota arrangements isn’t too much to ask. But it seems unlikely.
- Bide your time. The contract is scheduled for review in 2018 – rumour has it Jeremy Hunt will be gone by then, and this may no longer be such a contentious political issue. With sufficient evidence of poor patient care and unsafe rotas, a renegotiation may be viable.
However, consider the context of the NHS. Over the past three years by every indicator the NHS has fallen into decline – waiting times, deficits, and now even hospital department closures, due to lack of staff. A new Autumn Statement might bring more money to the NHS, but having been through it’s most austere decade in it’s history, it’s even-odds whether there will even be an NHS at all come 2020.
For me, I left full-time training in August and have no plans to return. This contract dispute highlighted a multitude of problems with training to start with – but the utter contempt our NHS leaders, our government and their solicitors, and even some of our own seniors have held their trainees in appalls me. It has become a toxic environment for training and working. As a flexible worker I feel appreciated and needed, train and study when I need to, and most importantly, see and look after my family.
It’s up to the individual doctor what they do from here. If you can live with the contract, live with it. If you can’t, then find some way to find someplace you can. I fear too many will find that place outside of the NHS. With a collapsing union, a rejected judicial challenge, a toxic training environment and a complete lack of political will to shore up the health system, can you blame them?