JUNIOR doctors and other NHS staff addressed a crowd of supporters last night at Manchester Cathedral in a fight for a fairer contract from the government.

The Not Safe – Not Fair rally, ran by members of the British Medical Association and the People’s Assembly, featured a panel of professionals from all over Greater Manchester.

The panel, hosted by Coronation Street actor Julie Hesmondalgh, included Dr. Seima Iqbal, Dr. Gursharan Johal, Dr. Rory Hicks, medical student Emma Runswick, and nurse and Unison representative Karen Reissmann. Each shared their fears on what the new junior doctor contract could mean for the future of the NHS.

The proposed contract, which details include extending regular-paid hours from 07:00-19:00 to 07:00-22:00, will allegedly put more strain on doctors who already say they are overworked and understaffed.

Junior doctors, depending on their placement, can end up working 13 hour shifts and, in some cases, work the long hours for over a week straight, leading to fears of the quality of patient care when being treated by overworked and exhausted doctors.

“I do not expect my patients to be seen by doctors who are demoralized, unmotivated, tired, unhappy and stressed by mounting debt because their pay’s being cut or their hours been changed, and the safeguarding of their hours removed,” spoke Dr. Seima Iqbal, GP at Wellfield Medical Centre.

“These doctors are human. They will make mistakes.”

Under the current contract, if a doctor has been deemed to have worked “excessive hours,” the hospital is fined and the doctor is given time off to recover. The contract on the table removes this safeguard and has yet to offer a replacement mechanism to monitoring doctor’s working hours.

Dr. Gursharan Johal, an FY2 junior doctor at North Manchester General, said that the union wouldn’t be able to advocate for overworked staff.

“If we now work 120 hours per week, we have no one to go to, no one to stand up to us. Our union can’t do anything because our contract doesn’t have anything to protect us.”

Dr. Max Thoburn, another FY2 junior doctor at Manchester Royal Infirmary who attended the rally, said in an interview after the rally that the key issues are work conditions and the need for more staffing.

“Nobody’s saying we need to be paid more. We’re fighting one to not take a massive pay cut, and two to keep good conditions that motivate people.”

“The fact is that we are chronically understaffed.”

According to a Unison survey conducted last year, based on a single working day in the NHS, 65 per cent of respondents said they did not have an adequate amount of time with each patient and said there was care left undone due to understaffing.

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, has promised an 11 per cent pay increase to all junior doctor salaries, but the doctors claim that the increase in regular working hours will in reality cause a pay cut.

Another controversial issue raised at the rally was the expansion of a 24/7 NHS. Salford Royal is currently on the 7-day model which has reported an increase in morale and patient care. Dr Thoburn attributes the success due to Salford Royal being high-performing and getting extra funds in order to attract more doctors.

In the eyes of NHS staff, the struggle with the government leaves the future uncertain for public health services.

“We all fear that this could eventually spell out the end of the NHS in the way that we know it,” said Dr Thoburn, who, alongside the rally speakers, is concerned that it could eventually lead to more privatization of health services.

Junior doctors have until 18 November to cast a strike ballot. If the strike goes through, it will be the first strike action that the junior doctors have taken in 40 years.

By Martin McFarlane

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