Government must not exploit patient deaths during junior doctor strikes, PRs warn

The Government should steer clear of exploiting any incidents such as patient deaths during the ongoing doctors' strike called by the British Medical Association (BMA), PR professionals have warned.

Unpopular contracts: Doctors at a protest yesterday (Credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
Unpopular contracts: Doctors at a protest yesterday (Credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

A fifth strike by junior doctors this year - and the first where emergency cover has been withdrawn - over changes to their contract began at 8am today (Tuesday). It will last until 5pm, and doctors will again strike from 9am to 5pm on Wednesday.

The first all-out doctors’ strike in the history of the National Health Service dominated the front page of most national newspapers. Amid fears that the withdrawal of emergency care could cause patient deaths, The Daily Telegraph ran the headline 'BMA: It’s not doctors’ fault if people die', above news that the medical union had written to junior doctors to reassure them that patient safety was the responsibility of NHS trusts and hospitals, rather than individual doctors.

Stephen Day, chief operating officer at Burson-Marsteller UK, told PRWeek: "Nobody associated closely with the Government should jump on, or should be very wary of jumping on, any extra death or unfortunate incident in hospitals and immediately pinning it on the BMA." He added: "That would likely result in backlash. The Government should not be going anywhere near this issue."

Neither side in the dispute should treat patient deaths as a political football, commented Paul Pambakian, account director in the health team of MHP Communications: "Both sides have to be really careful about playing politics with patients. Not only would this be morally questionable, it also has the huge potential to backfire."

Tens of thousands of junior doctors, representing about a third of the medical workforce in the NHS in England, are taking part in the strike. More than 125,000 operations and appointments have been postponed and NHS England claims "military level" emergency plans have been carried out to safeguard emergency care.

In contrast to the four strikes that have taken place since January, the current walk-out is the first in which emergency cover is not being provided by junior doctors. The move risks eroding public support, which has fallen in the past few weeks. Although the majority of people (57 per cent) are still in support of junior doctors, this is down almost ten percentage points from the 65 per cent who backed them last month, according to a new Ipsos MORI survey.

Bill Morgan, a founding partner at Incisive Health who was previously a special adviser to the former health secretary Andrew Lansley, commented: "The greatest damage to the cause of junior doctors will come if a local hospital declares a major emergency and calls them into work and they stay out on the picket line – with potentially tragic consequences." If that were to happen, it would "really test the public’s patience, particularly because any subsequent inquiry would lay the blame squarely at the doctors’ door", he added.

"These two days of industrial action mark one of the lowest points in the wonderful history of the NHS," said BMA junior doctors' committee chair Johann Malawana. He defended the impact on patients: "It is for the benefit of the same patients and people who need to use the NHS in future that we take this action."

The long-running dispute between the Government and doctors to try to agree a new contract for junior doctors remains unresolved despite three years of talks and several strikes since the start of this year.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt described today as a "very bleak day" for the NHS, and the Prime Minister David Cameron said: "It’s the wrong thing to do to go ahead with this strike and particularly to go ahead with the withdrawal of emergency care – that is not right."

The gulf between the Government and doctors has prompted National Voices, a coalition of 160 health and care charities, to call for mediation in the hope of breaking the deadlock between the two parties.

"The dispute is now a classic stand-off in which neither side can back down without losing face. A continuing game of chicken for which patients pay the price," commented Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of National Voices. "This is classic territory for mediation by an independent third party, and we believe that should be a patient group," he added.

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