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Thousands of Doctors Go on Strike in England a Week Before the General Election

It's over a long-running dispute with the government over pay and working conditions.

Junior doctors on the picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital, London, during their continuing dispute over pay, Thursday June 27, 2024.
Junior doctors on the picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital, London, during their continuing dispute over pay, Thursday June 27, 2024.
Jordan Pettitt/PA via AP

LONDON (AP) — Thousands of doctors in England are staging their 11th walkout on Thursday in a long-running dispute with the government over pay and working conditions, disrupting hospital services just days before the U.K. general election.

The five-day strike by junior doctors — those in the early years of their careers — shines a spotlight on the troubles besetting the chronically underfunded National Health Service, Britain's state-run public health system, a topic that is a top concern for voters going to the polls on July 4.

Junior doctors, who form the backbone of hospital and clinic care, have been locked in the pay dispute with the government since late 2022. They went on strike for six days in January — the longest in NHS history — and hospitals had to cancel tens of thousands of appointments and operations.

The latest strike began Thursday and ends on Tuesday, just two days before voters cast their ballots for a new House of Commons.

The British Medical Association, the doctors' union, says their pay has dropped by a quarter over the last 15 years and has called for a 35% pay raise. The union says newly qualified doctors earn about 15 pounds ($19) an hour — the U.K. minimum wage is just over 10 pounds an hour — though salaries rise rapidly after the first year.

Dr. Sumi Manirajan, deputy chair of the junior doctors committee in the union, said years of underinvestment has resulted in young doctors leaving in droves to countries such as Australia that offer better pay, with those left behind seriously overworked and underpaid.

"Doctors that I trained with in London, some of the best in the country, have left to go to New Zealand. And actually what it makes me think of is why am I not doing the same? I want to be valued for the work that I do," she said.

Manirajan, who recently graduated and works in obstetrics and gynecology, said she sees many women waiting for more than a year for routine procedures.

"These patients are in pain, and it hurts us to see these patients come in again and again with the same problem that we know we could treat if we had enough doctors," she said.

Dr. Shivam Sharma, who was among colleagues chanting on the picket line outside St. Thomas' Hospital in central London on Thursday, said the state of Britain's health service is "terrifying."

"We used to have real standards in this country. Patients need to be seen at A&E (hospital emergency rooms) within four hours, and now you're lucky to be seen within 12," he said. "Last winter we had 500 avoidable deaths a week. That's like a Boeing jet of patients going down. It's completely unacceptable."

The Conservative government says it gave the doctors pay raises of between 8.1% and 10.3% last year and that it was a generous settlement. It maintained that authorities can't make a pay offer during the preelection period but the union refused to call off the strikes.

Manirajan said it was unfortunate that the government chose to call an election while knowing that the dispute was unresolved.

The doctors' union said it was ready to talk, and it has already had some discussions with the opposition Labour Party, which has a considerable lead in polls.

"It is difficult to comprehend how either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party can deliver on their manifesto commitment to recover NHS performance over the next Parliament without first ending the dispute," said Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King's Fund think tank.

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Associated Press video journalist Tian Macleod Ji contributed to this report.

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