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Strike cannot be justified and could harm patients, GMC warns

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4802 (Published 05 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4802
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. BMJ Careers
  1. arimmer{at}bmj.com

Planned strike action by junior doctors in England cannot be justified and could harm patients, the General Medical Council has warned.

The BMA announced last week that junior doctors in England will stage four rounds of industrial action from September until December. Each round will comprise full withdrawal of labour between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm for five consecutive weekdays.1

Terence Stephenson, chair of the GMC, said that the BMA’s announcement marked a “substantial escalation” on previous industrial action because it involved the removal of emergency care, a rolling programme of action, the removal of junior doctors’ services for five days, and much shorter notice to NHS employers.

“We know that doctors will again want to do their utmost to reduce the risk of harm and suffering to patients. However, for the reasons given above, it is hard to see how this can be avoided this time around,” Stephenson said.

“To suggest otherwise would be a disservice to the enormous contribution made by doctors in training to the care and treatment of NHS patients every day. We therefore do not believe that the scale of action planned at such short notice can be justified, and we are now calling on every doctor in training to pause and consider the implications for patients.”

The GMC has issued advice to doctors taking part in the strike (www.gmc-uk.org/news/28659.asp), which is based on the GMC’s guidance Good Medical Practice. Setting out the advice, Niall Dickson, the GMC’s chief executive, said that the regulator was asking every doctor contemplating industrial action to “pause and consider” the possible implications for patients, “not only in terms of the immediate action but also in terms of the cumulative impact on patients, the additional risk posed by the withdrawal of emergency cover, and the effect of removing all doctors in training every day for five days every month.”

Dickson said that the GMC could not second guess the situation facing each doctor in training in England but that, given the scale of what was proposed, it believed that patients would suffer. “Any doctor who does decide to take action must take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves about the arrangements being made during the period when they are withdrawing their labour,” Dickson said.

“This means making sure that senior doctors and managers have enough time to make alternative arrangements—action without warning or with inadequate warning is not acceptable.”

He said that if it became clear during the action that patients were at risk, junior doctors should return to work if their employers asked them to. “In the event of an emergency, we know doctors in training will always come forward,” Dickson said. “Where contingency plans are overwhelmed, it is vital that doctors taking action can be contacted and are available to help.”

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