LONDON (AP) — Thousands of senior doctors across England began a 48-hour strike Thursday to demand better pay and conditions, paralyzing hospitals and leaving only emergency care covered.
The serious disruptions are the latest in months of union action by public sector workers amid the UK’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis. They come just two days after junior doctors staged the longest strike in the history of the state-funded National Health Service.
Thousands of surgeries and appointments have been canceled, and health officials say the impact of the latest round of strikes on the country’s public health system is likely to be the biggest yet, as hospitals are almost unable to get work done unless supervised by a senior physician.
Senior doctors, known in the UK as consultants, will only be available “on call” until Saturday morning for urgent work, such as critical cancer care.
The Conservative government has offered doctors a 6% pay rise, but the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, called this “ridiculous”. She said doctors have seen real pay fall by more than a third over the past 14 years, and accused authorities of refusing to participate in pay negotiations.
Trade union director Dr. Vishal Sharma said many in his profession felt “undervalued and overworked”.
“Consultants are going to stand on the picket lines today, because we are angry and at the lowest point. We never wanted to be forced to take this huge step,” Sharma said. “The ministers have done absolutely nothing to stop this action.”
Psychiatrist Polly Christodoulou, who joined the picket line outside a South London hospital, said many colleagues have left for the private sector or other countries such as Australia as the wages on offer are much better.
“A lot of us have been training for over 15 years to get to where we are today and it’s not appreciated,” she said. “I want to be able to stay and support the NHS, but it’s getting harder and harder.”
Nurses, doctors-in-training and emergency room workers have all joined public sector strikes in recent months to demand better pay to cope with rising food, energy and housing costs. Inflation in the UK was 7.9% in June, down from the double digits earlier this year, but still much higher than other economies in the Group of Seven.
Even before the strikes, the National Health Service, a beloved British institution that started in 1948, was already under enormous pressure, strained by a shrinking workforce, huge backlogs and funding shortfalls.
Hospital executives have warned that the labor disputes could cost billions of pounds and that trade unions and civil servants need to reach a swift agreement to break the deadlock.