It was cold on Tuesday, but at least it wasn’t raining. The turnout for the Remedy Mass Lobby of parliament was pitifully small. Rota swaps make it hard to get to London during the week and you can’t lobby MPs at the weekend, but the truth is that our doctors are punch drunk and have lost much of the will to fight. So there weren’t many of us, though a lot of us had come a long way, and we did get questions asked in parliament as a result of our efforts.
Then the few of us who where there faced the problem of educating our MPs in the issue before we could ask them to help, and it is so complicated and unbelievable that there is no simple way to explain it.
The long and the short is that there is already inadequate cover on the wards – our wards, where your mother’s recovering from a fall, where my father-in-law has pneumonia, where your sister has breast-cancer, where your daughter’s having a baby – and this inadequate cover is a direct result of the restrictions placed on doctors’ choices by the government policy called “Modernising Medical Careers”.
There are thousands of unemployed doctors, and thousands of unfilled jobs – what’s the problem?
Ah. This is government sleight of hand: they are encouraging you to confuse “jobs” with “careers”. There is now a two-layer career structure for doctors in hospitals, with generalist posts providing ward-cover and specialist posts including training and career progression. Doctors who want to be generalist and do the same thing year after year become GPs, work normal hours and don’t risk being sued for misunderstandings or mistakes. You see, surgeons and specialist medics tend to be an ambitious lot, thank goodness, or we would have no Consultants and Registrars at all. Doctors who are drawn to the more competitive paths of surgery or specialised medicine are – duh – more competitive, they are turned off by being told that they can never, ever, progress beyond where they are at the age of 28. Do you want to be treated by a depressed and demotivated doctor? No, neither do I.
Yes, this is a caring profession. Yes, they have £30 grand’s worth of debt to repay and if they leave it may take them decades to do it. And yes, many doctors have an emotional need to be needed. But we can’t take the piss out of them forever. They are clever, highly trained, used to working under pressure, and – get this – ambitious. They’ve had to be ambitious to get this far. They can go. Many have already left. Many more are leaving. Those who have stayed as locums and staff-grade posts are keeping the NHS going, but are suffering enormously as a consequence. The consultant psychiatrist who’d travelled to be at Westminster on Tuesday said she had never had to treat so many juniors for depression. The government has turned our doctors into patients.
But why can’t they just apply for another training post?
They aren’t allowed to. This is so implausible that the government have got away with it. No-one other than those directly affected believe it’s true, but tens of thousands of doctors are in the position where they have lost their one and only chance at a training post.
How can this be?
Imagine a railway station. In the bad old days you’d mill around and catch a train that took you one stop down the line, and then you’d have to get off. Then you’d catch the next train that was going in roughly the right direction and travel one stop down the line. And so on. Doctors took a series of 6 month training posts for several years, gaining experience, being trained, gradually becoming more specialised and progressing towards registrarship and then consultancy where they added accountability to their life and death responsibilities. It was unsettling, geographically disruptive, nerve-wracking and all in all a very unpleasant way to spend your twenties and early thirties, but it did get you there in the end.
Now, instead of a flexible system, doctors have one chance and one chance only to catch the train. This is so completely barking that no-one believes it’s true. But if you wait at the station even a month too long, taking locum jobs or staff grade posts without training, you can no longer apply to get on the train. You are forced onto the waiting busses, which just drive you round and round the car-park of locum shifts and ward cover and don’t go anywhere at all. Or else you take a taxi to the airport and a job in Australia, New Zealand, or just walk out and get a rapid-grad job in a bank or law-firm.
Does this matter?
The fact that there is already inadequate cover on the wards really matters, and shifts all over the country are being run without the doctors needed for patients to stay safe and staff to keep sane. No-one wants to locum – it’s perceived as failing in the profession, and this is a direct result of creating a two-tier profession. As a result, hospitals are desperate for locums, and locums can and do name their hours and say “no night shifts, thank you”.
In terms of the medics themselves, then I think it matters that an entire generation of doctors has been prevented from progressing in their profession, though I know there are vindictive labour politicos who regard doctors as power-crazed middle-class hypocrites and MTAS and MMC as a job well done.
The separation of families certainly matters to those involved; on Tuesday I heard of a couple where he took a locum job in Glasgow to be nearer to her in Inverness, though a three and a half hour drive each way is not “near” when both partners work 12 hour shifts. I also met Lindsay Cooke, whose daughter has emigrated to a job in New Zealand. Nice work if you can get it, but emigration is always hard on those left behind. Hell, the one I went to London with on Tuesday would be in South Africa by now if he’d not been offered a training post last year.
The government accepted that last year was a cock-up and commissioned an independent report on the situation from Sir John Tooke. Tooke’s report makes dozens of clearly defined recommendations and it is supported by 87% of the profession. Tooke spreads blame widely among the government and also among the seniors who run the Royal Colleges and the medical schools, and asks such fundamental questions as what sort of doctors do we want and what sort of training will it take to get them?
The government is implementing only 25% of Tooke’s recommendations, it accepts a further 25% “in principle” – huh? – and is getting Lord Darzi to reconsider the rest. Divide and conquer, anyone?
And the Mass Lobby?
Did I manage to explain any of this to my MP in a way she understood? Probably not. My neighbour runs her constituency office, and they are two members of staff down so even if I write to her asking her to support the BMA’s Early Day Motion, which I will, she will just forward the letter on to the DoH and that will be that.
I did discover that the Members’ Tea Room has the cheapest tea and coffee in London though. £2.20 for a cup of tea and two cups of coffee – who needs an account with John Lewis if you can score caffeine as cheap as that? Oh, and attempted acts of terrorism are worth commemorating with novelty foodstuffs if they took place in the 17th century. I wonder what novelty foodstuffs will be used to commemorate the implosion of the NHS.