BMA announces third strike - but will providing emergency cover keep the public on side?

The British Medical Association has confirmed it will go ahead with another 24-hour strike next week - but in a concession to public goodwill, will provide emergency care on this date.

Junior doctors: On the picket line outside Great Ormond Street Hospital in London during January's strike (credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
Junior doctors: On the picket line outside Great Ormond Street Hospital in London during January's strike (credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Junior doctors staged a first strike on 12 January over proposed changes to their contract as the Government attempts to deliver on its manifesto commitment of extending the working hours of the NHS.

Another strike planned for 26 January was called off, but an announcement by the BMA at 1pm yesterday (Monday) said a third strike on 10 February would go ahead, but would last 24 not 48 hours as previously stated, and that during this time would provide the emergency cover it had initially said it would withdraw.

In the statement on its website announcing this, BMA junior doctors committee chair Johann Malawana said: "We have changed the form of the industrial action starting on 10 February so as to balance the need to send a clear message to a Government putting politics before patients while minimising disruption."

Paul Pambakian, a senior account manager in the health team of MHP Communications, told PRWeek the day after the 12 January strike that "in reality, yesterday was a loss for everyone involved".

However, he said the provision of emergency care was a wise move by the BMA, saying: "Compared with the first strike, the public is noticeably less supportive of a strike that leaves no provision for emergency care. As such, the BMA has been wise to avoid an ‘all-out’ strike, which would have strained public sympathy for its cause."

He said the guaranteed media coverage of the strike "represents an opportunity for the comms teams on both sides to refine their messages", but concluded: "That said, there is probably more pressure on the BMA this time, as if the Government can escape unscathed it is hard to envisage public support growing for strikes four and five."

Stephen Day, chief operating officer at Burson-Marsteller UK, agreed that public reputation risk for the BMA had increased, saying: "The longer this dispute continues, the harder it is for it to prevail. It seems to me that while the BMA won round one in terms of public sentiment and opinion around the first strike, invariably the public loses interest and sympathy with the protagonists in protracted industrial disputes and this is likely to be the case in this instance too."

He went on to say that even if the first strike had been 'won' by the doctors, there was "little evidence that this appears to have had any impact at all on the wider standing of the Government in terms of broader poll support", adding that as long as this continued, the Government was "unlikely to be swayed from its stance".

Siân Boisseau, executive director of health at Golin, said: "If a strike that left no emergency cover was found to cause a significant increase in patient deaths, it would be easy for that support to drop into the minority. The wording [of the BMA announcement] used seems fair and balanced to me, and undoubtedly recognises the importance of keeping the public on side."

A Department of Health spokesman sent PRWeek a link to a letter from Sir David Dalton, the lead negotiator at NHS Employers, published on the organisation's website, which said that the most significant of the areas where agreement had not been reached was "pay linked to unsocial hours".

The spokesman also sent the following statement: "It is regrettable that the BMA is proceeding with further unnecessary industrial action. Sir David Dalton’s published summary of negotiations shows how close we are to agreeing a deal and demonstrates our strong desire to resolve the key substantive issue of pay for unsocial hours – as both parties agreed to do with ACAS back in November. As Sir David recommends, we want to settle this so that we can improve the standard of care for patients at weekends."

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