Blogging can be addictive. I try to limit myself to one a week. But after the Secretary of State announced yesterday that a pay “settlement” will now be imposed on junior doctors, given that extended negotiations have so far failed to reach a conclusion satisfactory to all parties, I feel I have something to say.
I know many junior doctors, including the daughters and sons of friends plus those I meet directly through ongoing contact with the NHS. These young people, who hold other people’s lives in their hands on a daily basis, are sensible, bright, compassionate, committed and driven. I don’t understand how a Secretary of State who was brought in to settle down the NHS after the mess the previous one created can have allowed himself to get into an intractable dispute with so popular and articulate a group of NHS staff.
But nor do I buy into conspiracy theories about privatisation by stealth; there would be better ways to achieve this than by alienating an essential section of the workforce. It is far more likely to be a cock-up. Someone probably advised him that the existing contract was, as most senior NHS managers including senior doctors know, overly complicated and no longer fit for purpose. (If indeed it ever was. This is not the fault of the junior doctors, by the way.)
And so he decided to immortalise his legacy as a moderniser by spearheading the introduction of a new contract. But because he isn’t a manager himself, he set out without understanding that the only way to change the contracts of any group of public sector staff, especially doctors who have possibly the most effective union in the country to negotiate for them, is to improve on their current terms and conditions. There is nothing that upsets people more than attempts to introduce changes that significantly worsen their position. And at the heart of the dispute is the fact that for everyone else in the NHS, Saturdays are not part of the core working week. And although there is little choice for the majority but to work on at least some Saturdays, doing so incurs additional payment. (That people in shops and restaurants don’t get paid extra for working on Saturdays these days is of no relevance.)
The Secretary of State also fell into a communications trap by talking about a 7-day NHS, when the group he was targeting already work shifts across 7 days. He chose the wrong example. To get a true 7-day service, he needs to persuade all other NHS staff who don’t already do so to work shifts over 7 days. And to find considerably more of them because spreading 5 across 7 just makes a thinner spread. And that would cost a great deal of money, which he doesn’t have.
What I know from my junior doctor friends is just how difficult it is to get onto a training programme that takes account of personal circumstances. These young people are already in their mid – late 20s. They have slogged away for 10 years plus to get to where they are now. Only the most elite get the pick of training jobs in university teaching trusts; everyone else is bundled around the country with little choice on short placements that have to be filled, because they are the medical workhorses of our NHS. This plays havoc with personal relationships and family life. So they are not a group for whom losing what little control they had over their Saturdays was ever likely to go down well.
With all this in mind, chief executives of trusts work to a bottom line, which is to deliver safe services within the money available. And 20 of them have found themselves in an invidious position. These 20 were asked whether the latest offer being made was, in their opinion given the circumstances, fair and reasonable. Having replied in most cases that on balance, they felt that it was, they found their names being included in a letter from the chief negotiator to the Secretary of State in support of something about which they had not been asked, ie an imposed settlement. For the sake of the point I want to make next, it doesn’t matter whether this was a cock-up or conspiracy. (I suspect cock-up, because they are far more common. And we humans make mistakes.) The letter caused a massive flurry on social media. And these people had to decide whether to keep quiet, incurring the wrath of their own junior medical staff and others who support the doctors, or come out and say that they had not agreed to the imposition, potentially putting their own careers at risk. That the majority did the latter fills my heart with hope for the NHS.
And my key point is this. To be a leader in today’s challenging NHS, there are seldom going to be obvious right answers. You will frequently be faced with dilemmas of this nature. If you don’t have the nous to work out when to put your head above the parapet and when to stay quiet, plus the courage to do the former at the very time it seems most lethal to do so, you haven’t got what it takes.
In other news, the Head of Google, Europe told the Public Accounts Committee yesterday that he couldn’t remember how much his own remuneration package was. Either he really couldn’t, in which case he is an idiot and has no right to be in charge of anything. Or he dissembled because he knew it to be a sum of many millions, embarrassing with Google under fire for paying so little corporation tax. Chief Executives of trusts have their salaries published every year and get pilloried for it in newspapers like the Daily Mail. And they all know exactly how much they earn, which is a tiny fraction of the forgetful man from Google. And yet each carries many times more responsibility than he would have a clue how to handle.
My worry is that there is a scarcity of people with the right attributes and courage to do these NHS leadership jobs. And we really, really need them. As we do our wonderful junior doctors.