Northern Ireland

‘Pay us or lose us’ - Junior doctors speak to The Irish News on their first ever day of strike action

Junior doctors on the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital as they take part in their first ever industrial action over pay. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

PUBLIC support for junior doctors on strike seemed obvious outside Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital on Wednesday morning.

“Pay us or lose us” and “claps don’t pay our bills” were among the slogans as well as frequent reminders that junior doctor pay has eroded by 30% over 15 years.

97.6% of junior doctors balloted by BMA Northern Ireland are calling for a full pay restoration to 2008 levels.

The Health Minister Robin Swann has questioned what the strikes can achieve, claiming it will mean thousands of missed appointments and procedures.

A backdated pay offer for 2023/24 has been made, amounting to a 9.1% increase for junior doctors and 10.7% for those in their first year.



The Department of Health has said it can only implement the recommendations of an independent pay review body and mirror pay settlements in England.

For 2024/25, a spokesperson said there was more scope to negotiate junior doctor pay as well as contracts, working conditions and other non-pay issues.

Among those on the Royal’s picket line was Maeve Middleton (33), a public health doctor for the Public Health Agency and Kiana Newman-Zand (32), a psychiatry trainee at Lagan Valley Hospital.

“Personally, I graduated in 2020 and started work early on Covid wards and I know a lot of my colleagues did the same,” said Dr Newman-Zand.

“I wanted to do that because I came into the profession to help people. I don’t think anyone would still be here if they were just in it for the money.

“It is quite demoralising and heartbreaking really to know that we’re not really valued by those that run the country.”

Maeve Middleton, junior doctor with public health agency and Kiana Newman-Zand who works is psychiatry at Lagan Valley Hospital. PICTURE MAL MCCANN
Maeve Middleton, junior doctor with public health agency and Kiana Newman-Zand who works is psychiatry at Lagan Valley Hospital. PICTURE MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Dr Middleton studied in Wales and worked in England before continuing her training in Northern Ireland.

“Going back to England would be a very obvious choice for me. I have friends there, I know how the system works, so that is a real option,” she said.

“Junior doctors are part of the solution here, not part of the problem. We’ve seen unacceptably long waiting lists for emergency care.

“Part of the solution there is to pay junior doctors fairly so that it is a health system that we want to work in.”

Ross Brown and Aoife Bannon, both aged 23, are at the very beginning of their medical careers as F1 doctors in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

“It’s very disappointing that we have to be out on strike, none of us wanted for it to come to this,” said Dr Bannon.

“We’ve been asking for pay restoration for a while and it’s disappointing that we have to be out on strike in order to get that.

“When we’re literally working ourselves to the bone with the rotas that we’re doing, with the staffing levels that we have when you can get paid double in a different country to have better conditions it does make it really hard to stay here.

Ross Brown and Aoife Bannon F1 doctors at Royal Victoria Hospital. PICTURE MAL MCCANN
Ross Brown and Aoife Bannon F1 doctors at Royal Victoria Hospital. PICTURE MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Dr Brown added: “Even comparing ourselves to other UK regions or down south, we are the lowest paid.

“It becomes a lot harder to attract and retain people here.”

Dr Brown said he was hopeful progress could be made more quickly than in England, where junior doctors have staged ten walkouts already.

“Obviously we hope not to get to the stage where we’re out ten times on strike, but the strength of feeling is here that we are happy enough if we get pay restoration.

“We’re sick of being undervalued and underpaid. Our dispute is with the health service and there is strong feeling that we want to keep going with that.

“The health minister can say what he likes, but our feeling is that this has gone on long enough and we’re not willing to put up with it anymore.”

Dr Fiona Griffin, chair of BMA's Northern Ireland junior doctors committee. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Dr Fiona Griffin, chair of BMA's Northern Ireland junior doctors committee. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Dr Fiona Griffin, Chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland Junior Doctor Committee, has been the public face of the campaign.

Apologising to patients for the disruption, she warned that waiting lists would only get worse in years to come unless the problems facing junior doctors were addressed.

“Today is a very important day. No one else on this picket line has ever been on strike before,” she said.

“My colleagues are saying it’s very important to them because they’re feeling they’re being pushed out of the profession.

“They’re being forced to leave training so they can go locum and actually make some more money to afford their bills and examinations that are mandatory for progression.

“It’s just not good enough, we’re really letting this whole group of people down. These are all the doctors of the future.

“In ten years, these guys are all going to be the consultants and speciality doctors and we want them here.

“We don’t want them in Australia or Canada, we want them here staffing the Royal, Craigavon and Ulster Hospitals.”