This was Jeremy Hunt’s make-or-break moment – and he blew it

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November 4, 2015 by Nash Riggins

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Admit it: we all love having a good moan about the NHS. The waiting times are too long, the hospital food is atrocious and staff practically force you out the door after each GP visit. Yet for all its faults, no one can deny that Britain’s National Health Service is one of this country’s finest sociological achievements. The NHS employs over 1.7m people who ensure that world-class, round-the-clock healthcare is readily accessible to anyone and everyone – regardless of where you come from or how much money you’ve got in the bank.

Well, it goes without saying maintaining that service isn’t exactly easy. Hospitals are regularly pushing junior staff to the brink, demanding they work long, unsociable hours without question. In fact, more often than not, it’s Britain’s 50,000 junior doctors who are keeping the country’s hospitals functioning after-hours – working above their paygrade with minimal resources to ensure that everyone is being properly looked after. Bearing that in mind, it would be sheer madness to try and piss those doctors off, right?

Enter Jeremy Hunt, all-round health guru and gung-ho politician.

Now, in 2012, Mr Hunt was brought in as the UK Government’s Health Secretary in order to smooth things over with an overworked and underappreciated NHS staff. His predecessor, Andrew Lansley, made a lot of enemies in his failed bid to restructure the way in which GP surgeries are run. So, Mr Hunt was given the relatively simple task of making amends with the NHS and its biggest union, the British Medical Association (BMA).

Against all odds, Mr Hunt somehow managed to make things even worse.

As part of David Cameron’s textbook general election manifesto, the Tories promised to give the British people “a truly 7-day NHS” in which hospitals and GP surgeries would run at full-steam all day, every day (I’m sure there was something in there about chocolate rainbows and gilded toilet seats, too). Who wouldn’t jump on that bandwagon? Well, doctors, apparently.

You see, in order to implement these plans for a 7-day NHS, Jeremy Hunt decided he would need to change the way in which we pay our junior doctors. Instead of giving them time-and-a-half for working unsociable hours and holidays, why don’t we simply stop paying them overtime altogether? That way, there won’t even be such a thing as ‘overtime’ or ‘unsociable hours’ – just work. Work all the time. Work, work, work.

Well, you can imagine why an overburdened, twenty-something doctor who’s already pulling doubles and being weighed down by countless responsibilities might get a little upset at being told to work more for less money. In fact, this week the BMA will be staging a vote on whether the country’s 50,000 junior doctors should simply walk out of hospitals and conduct a full-on strike. Good on them.

Thus far, the Health Secretary has done nothing but antagonise doctors and moan that greedy union reps are holding the NHS hostage. He’s spent the last seven weeks at loggerheads with BMA leaders, pretending to listen to their realistic demands whilst secretly day-dreaming of an impending cabinet shuffle that will see him carried far, far away from this godawful mess he’s created.

And now, with a vote for action on the horizon and strikes imminent, what does Mr Hunt do? Offer a ‘generous’ 11% pay increase if junior doctors accept their new contract terms. If anything, this offer is going to piss doctors off even more – least of all because it’s been dangled in front of BMA members as though the government is making some huge concession. If you do the math, Hunt’s proposal would actually mean a net salary reduction of 22% for some of the country’s hardest-working individuals. It’s not a peace offering – it’s just insulting.

Listen: at the end of the day, nobody wants to see doctors walk out of a hospital and go on strike. But you know what? When an employer starts treating its employees like garbage, somebody has got to stand up and argue for what’s right. Commanding overworked doctors to do more for less isn’t right – and so we’ve got to remind our government that it can’t just tinker with people’s lives to deliver on unrealistic campaign promises.

Every politician has a make-or-break moment – that pivotal time in which they must either step up to the plate and prove their worth, or slink back into the partisan sludge from whence they came. Well, this has been Mr Hunt’s turn to step up to the plate – and he’s completely whiffed it.

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