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Junior doctors in England begin striking over new contract

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(Bloomberg) — Junior doctors at state-run National Health Service (NHS) hospitals in England began a strike Tuesday over government plans to impose a new contract changing the way they’re paid and reducing compensation for evening and weekend work.

The doctors — medical-school graduates who are training to be consultants or family practitioners and are the equivalent of medical residents in the United States — are only providing emergency care for the 24 hours that started at 8 a.m. London time. It’s the first of three strikes planned between now and Feb. 10, following a 98 percent vote by doctors in favor of action late last year. Attempts to negotiate a deal to avert the strike collapsed on Friday.

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The new contract includes an 11 percent increase in basic pay, which would range from 25,500 pounds ($37,000) to 55,000 pounds a year, and the Department of Health says 99 percent of doctors would be no worse off. The British Medical Association, the doctors’ labor union, says it fails to address demands to ensure patient safety and give proper rewards to those working overnight and at weekends.

“Junior doctors feel they have been left with no option but to take this action,” the chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, Johann Malawana, said on the union’s website. “The government must address our concerns around safe working patterns and ensure the contract recognizes the long, intense and unsocial hours which junior doctors do.”

In recent months, the NHS has increased the pressure by working to increase patients’ access to after-hours and weekend care, the union says.

Prime Minister David Cameron’soffice called on the union to return to the negotiating table.

“We had made good progress during negotiations in recent weeks,” the premier’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London Tuesday. “We continue to urge the BMA to work with us to resolve this.”

The Press Association newswire reported that about 4,000 operations and procedures were canceled across England as a result of the strike. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland run their health services separately and aren’t affected.

“We have tried and tested plans to deal with a range of disruptions including industrial action,” the NHS England director dealing with preparations for the strike, Anne Rainsberry, said in a statement. “The safety and care of patients is our top priority and the NHS has robust plans in place to ensure those who need emergency treatment will continue to receive it.”

‘Internal incident’

One hospital in the West Midlands, Sandwell General, declared an “internal incident” and ordered doctors to report for work as normal, saying in a letter to them that it “would be unsafe to deliver care to all our in-patients with a reduced workforce.”

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Twitter that the blame for the strike “must be laid at the door of this government for the way it has treated doctors.” He called on ministers to apologize to medics and “negotiate a fair deal that gets our NHS working again.”

A poll by Ipsos Mori for the BBC and the Health Service Journal found 66 percent of respondents in favor of the strike with 16 percent opposed. Ipsos Mori questioned 869 adults Jan. 8-10; no margin of error was specified. 

—With assistance from Svenja O’Donnell.

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