Northern Ireland

What will a Northern Ireland junior doctors strike mean for patients?

New strike dates have been announced by junior doctors in England
As junior doctors in Northern Ireland have backed strike action next month for the first time, their counterparts in England are already preparing for their tenth walkout over pay and conditions. (Jonathan Brady/PA)

THE overwhelming consensus from junior doctors to strike for the first time in Northern Ireland (97.6% on a 63.7% ballot turnout) represents yet another landmark moment in the problems facing the health service.

Paramedics, nurses and midwives have become a regular fixture at picket lines in Northern Ireland over the last year, and a 24-hour walkout from 8am on March 6 by junior doctors is now all but certain.

Consultants are not affected by the latest ballot and will be on hand to cover shifts, but a statement from the British Medical Association last week said that senior doctors were also “moving in that direction”.

The anger among medics is evident, not only for an erosion of their pay equating to 30% over the past 15 years, but also for the brain drain it creates with medics choosing to work elsewhere for better pay and conditions.

This staffing pressure and associated risk of burnout only adds to the difficulty in addressing Northern Ireland’s waiting lists, consistently the worst in the UK.

But what will the industrial action mean for patients?

One guide is the parallel dispute with junior doctors in England who are already preparing for their tenth walkout over pay on February 24.

It is reported this will likely cause thousands of NHS operations and appointments to be cancelled, after the six-day strike in January saw more than 100,000 appointments put on hold.

Earlier this month, the chief executive of NHS providers Sir Julian Hartley, said the announcement of more junior doctor strikes in England was “another body blow for leaders of NHS services already stretched to the limit”.

“Patients having to wait even longer for the care they need is a huge concern,” he said.

“Before it’s too late politicians and unions must get back to serious talks which can address doctors’ concerns, resolve the dispute and prevent more strikes.”

In England, junior doctors received a pay rise averaging nearly 9% this financial year but the BMA has asked for a 35% “pay restoration” as its starting position, but remains willing to negotiate.

Last week, Department of Health officials in Northern Ireland had suggested a 6% pay uplift for junior doctors starting in the new financial year.

Members of the BMA were left “extremely disappointed and disheartened” and were told any further discussions on pay would have to wait until pay negotiations in England had concluded, despite pay and health being devolved matters.

Summing up the mood, the chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland Junior Doctor Committee Dr Fiona Griffin said on Monday: “All of this is simply unacceptable and is far from the spirit of meaningful engagement on pay. It further adds to the sense that the role doctors play in the health service is simply not valued.”