Why are England's hospital doctors so angry?

junior doctors strike

Hospital doctors in England are getting really, really angry.

Thousands went on strike Tuesday, withdrawing emergency room care for the first time in 70 years. They are protesting against plans by the British government to impose new contracts later this year.

"The imposition of this contract is tremendously damaging to the morale of junior doctors and medical students and has resulted in a complete breakdown of trust between doctors and the government," said Johann Malawana, a spokesman for the doctors.

The government wants to extend hospital doctors' core working hours. In return, they're being offered an increase in basic pay worth 13.5% on average. But other parts of their salaries are being slashed. They'll get reduced premium payments for working at night and weekends, for example.

The doctors say the new contracts will mean lower pay for some, and force them to work more weekend shifts for no extra pay. They say the new system is unfair and unsafe, because it could force some to work shifts without enough rest between them.

Under the new contracts, pay rises will be linked to training and experience, rather than years on the job. The government argues this will make salaries fairer, rewarding skills and responsibilities. But the doctors say the new system will disadvantage those taking a break, for example to go on maternity leave. Junior doctors now get an automatic pay rise every year, as they progress through the system.

The dispute has been going on for almost three years. The new system will cost about the same as the contract, according to the government.

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According to the British Medical Association, the starting salary for doctors in England is £22,862 ($33,350) a year after graduating from medical school, with pay going up with each year of training on the job.

The term "junior doctor" covers everyone below the "consultant" grade, which doctors in the U.K. usually reach after eight to 10 years of practicing medicine.

Once they become consultants, their pay goes up to £76,000 ($110,870).

Healthcare is free in the U.K., provided by the publicly-funded National Health System. An estimated 1.3 million people work for the NHS, but the system is becoming increasingly stretched for resources, and doctors' morale is falling.

The British General Medical Council said a growing number of doctors are now leaving the country. It said it has already issued over 2,000 certificates in 2016 for doctors who want to work abroad. About 4,500 such certificates were issued last year.

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Tuesday's strike is the first time in the history of the National Health Service that junior doctors have gone on a strike that includes accident and emergency departments, as well as intensive and maternity care wards.

The British Medical Association said no patients would be put in danger because of the strike, because consultants would step in to cover for their striking junior colleagues. But thousands of scheduled operations have had to be postponed or canceled.

Opinion polls suggest a majority of the British public back the doctors. A poll by Ipsos MORI for the BBC showed 57% of people support their cause.

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