Feature

Junior doctors’ dispute: a pollster’s view

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i1717 (Published 31 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1717
  1. Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI
  1. Ben.Page{at}ipsos.com

Ben Page assesses what the polls tell us about the public’s view of strike action

Doctors don’t normally strike. They have been the most trusted profession in the United Kingdom ever since we first asked about the veracity of different professions in the 1980s. The clergy has seen its levels of trust fall, and that of scientists has risen, but, year in year out, nothing has blunted the public’s trust in doctors. Not even Harold Shipman. In contrast fewer than one in four people trust cabinet ministers to tell the truth, and the Department of Health was always going to be on the defensive. So when the BMA announced strike action, I expected public support to be high. Since January 2016 we have measured public support for the doctors and the government, and every month around two thirds of the public have said they support the doctors. By maintaining emergency care, doctors have kept support stable at 65% over the past three months. And looking at the data in detail, despite attacks by the Sun newspaper, if anything, support has strengthened—the proportion of people who say they “strongly” support the doctors rose from 41% in January to 46% in March.

When asked whose fault the protracted dispute is, 57% blame the government and only 11% the doctors, although, as the dispute has dragged on, the proportion blaming both sides for bloody mindedness has risen from 18% to 28%.

The public knows little about what conditions doctors currently work under, or what the government’s proposed contract is—people just instinctively side with doctors. They tend to think the dispute is about hours of work and implications for safety of patients (64%) rather than simply pay (60%): in-depth analysis shows that those who support the strike most focus on long hours rather than pay.

Part of the success of the BMA’s strategy has been to ensure that emergency services run “normally.” The overall position is remarkably similar to the firefighters’ strike of a decade or so ago. In October 2002 almost two thirds of people in Britain (65%) supported the fire strike as long as the fire crews still responded to “major” emergency calls.

Of course, the junior doctors have now decided to escalate industrial action. This is where the situation becomes more difficult to predict. In our research, we have found that the public’s sympathy drops away if they are told that emergency departments would be affected by industrial action. In the next wave of strikes we may see less support. In our most recent poll it falls substantially if emergency services are affected—down to 44%, with 39% opposed— although, even with emergency cover affected, public support still outweighs opposition.

The detail of why this normally relatively mild mannered—if sometimes irascible—group of professionals is so angry is of course obscure to most people, but they attract a natural sympathy from across society; currently both the middle classes (63%, ABC1) and working class (66% C2DE) are united in their support.

At present in Britain less than one person in 100 cites strikes or industrial action as a key challenge facing the country. By contrast, back in the 1970s, the equivalent figure was 73%: it was the number one issue.

With doctors’ support so embedded, public opinion is not likely to really swing against doctors unless there are some well publicised deaths that can be easily and directly attributed to strike action, however long this dispute drags on. The current threat of escalating action risks alienating some of the public, but junior doctors’ support runs deep.

Footnotes

  • Tweets at @benatipsosmori

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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