LONDON–Tens of thousands of junior doctors in England went on strike Tuesday, causing major disruption to hospitals in the first walkout of its kind for 40 years. They are providing only emergency cover during a 24-hour walkout which started at 0800 GMT, meaning that several thousand routine operations have had to be canceled, along with appointments and tests. The strike is over a new type of contract which the government says will improve health care at night and at weekends but medics say would drastically reduce their pay. “The new contract is not fair, it’s not safe and from the beginning, we as a profession have been bullied, intimidated and threatened by the Department of Health,” said Florence Dalton, 29, a psychiatrist picketing at St. Pancras hospital in central London. She added that many workers in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) felt “exhausted, overstretched and undervalued.” “Staff are already leaving in their droves,” she said. “Fewer and fewer people are coming into the profession. It makes me so angry.” Doctors on several picket lines in London were joined by a choir of NHS doctors and nurses who took this year’s Christmas No. 1 spot in the UK’s pop charts ahead of Justin Bieber with a charity singer. There are more than 50,000 junior doctors in England, making up a third of the medical workforce.
They are qualified medical practitioners who are working while studying for qualifications for more senior roles. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron appealed to junior doctors to call off what he said was an unnecessary strike which would cause “real difficulties” to the NHS. His government says the reforms are needed to help create a “seven days a week” NHS where the quality of care is as high at the weekends as on weekdays. The NHS has so far postponed 4,000 routine treatments due to the strike. A further 48-hour stoppage is due to take place on Jan. 26, while on Feb. 10, there will be a full withdrawal of labor from 0800 GMT to 1700 GMT. The NHS is the fifth largest employer in the world, providing health care which is largely free at the point of delivery. It is widely respected in the UK, with pollsters YouGov rating it the institution that the most people view positively. One hospital in the West Midlands, Sandwell in West Bromwich, ordered its junior doctors to work despite the strike due to what it said were “very high” numbers of patients coming to the hospital and fewer than usual being discharged. However, the British Medical Association (BMA), which organized the strike, said junior doctors there should keep striking until it was confirmed that “a major unpredictable incident” was taking place.