May's 'Thatcher moment' awaits as junior doctors' public support appears exhausted

The British Medical Association and its striking junior doctors risk "overplaying their hand" with continued strike action, with the government appearing to believe it can win the battle for public support, public affairs professionals have told PRWeek.

Dr Anthony Ng on the picket line outside Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge in March (© Chris Radburn/PA Wire)
Dr Anthony Ng on the picket line outside Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge in March (© Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

When junior doctors first went on strike in January in a dispute over changes to their contract, the BMA described industrial action as a "last resort" - and the medical profession appeared to enjoy a large degree of public support through the Spring.

However, today's front pages attest to widening divisions in the doctors' previously united front, with senior professionals urging the strike action to end, Government continuing its criticism of the profession and the Daily Mail reporting figures alleging that less than a third of junior doctors ever supported strikes.

The topic has again become a key political issue ahead of next week's resumption of parliament, and the beginning on 12 September of the first of four fresh strikes.

Stephen Day, the chief operating officer and head of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller UK, said that Prime Minister Theresa May's condemnation of the BMA earlier this week for "playing politics" was a clear attempt to "rally public opinion against the action".

"Those close to government consider that the BMA's position has been significantly weakened after its members rejected a deal that their own leaders had negotiated before the summer. They believe that public opinion is slowly turning against the doctors, who seem now to lack a clear patient-focused narrative around the dispute, whereas the Government's message of a 'seven days a week NHS' is simple, populist and appears to be gaining traction," he said.

Day suggested that a defeat of the medical union could provide May with her "Thatcher moment" - akin to the former Prime Minister's show of strength in a dispute with miners in the 1980s.

Ed McRandal, an associate director at ICG, said: "Industrial disputes with Government often boil down to one simple calculation: on whose side does public opinion lie?

"By rejecting a deal they had previously advocated and imposing consecutive months of strike action, the BMA risks overplaying its hand. Should public sympathy disappear on the back of cancelled operations and avoidable deaths, then junior doctors will find it increasingly hard to make their voices heard."

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