‘I wish junior doctors all the best in their fight’

Dr Peter Curtis
Dr Peter Curtis
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Today as junior doctors are set to go on strike over planned new contracts. Retired Lancashire GP Peter Curtis, 64, recalls here how he went on strike in 1975 as a newly-qualified doctor in a similar battle over the negotiation of new working hours and pay - and urges junior doctors to stick to their guns.

The current Junior Doctors strike takes me back to when I first qualified as a doctor in 1975.

Peter Curtis in the 1970s, when he was a Junior Doctor

Peter Curtis in the 1970s, when he was a Junior Doctor

That too was a year the doctors went on strike over a contractual dispute.

I come from a family with a strong history of the medical profession.

My great great great great great great grandfather through to my great great grandfather were all doctors.

My great great great grandfather attended the author Jane Austen during her final illness.

Her diary notes reveal this, saying “...my having seen Mr Curtis, or my disorders choosing to go away, have make me better this morning”.

The next three generations left the medical field entirely, but I decided to apply to medical school.

Five years of university life from 1970-1975 was fantastic but nothing in those five years prepared me for the hard work and long hours of being a junior hospital doctor.

At least I did not have a large student loan to pay back like the current doctors.

It has always been that every generation of doctors says “we worked harder and longer” than the subsequent generations.

I am sure though that the intensity of work is higher now than it was then, even though in some cases the hours may not be as long. 

In 1975, like now, junior hospital doctors were fighting the introduction of a new contract by the Government.

I was working a “one in two” rota.

This meant working 9-5 every day Monday through to Friday, every other week night and every other complete weekend - in other words 104 out of the 168 hours in a week.

When your colleague was on holiday you covered their hours as well.

It was lucky we only had four weeks holiday a year.

In spite of these antisocial and dangerous hours the vote for industrial action was only 56 per cent unlike the 98 per cent for today’s full strike action.

In preparation for the strike I trained my medical consultant in the basics of taking blood and setting up intravenous infusions.

He was six months off retirement and clearly hadn’t done anything like that for possibly decades.

I’m not sure he realised that we were winding him up and had no intention of seriously letting him loose on our patients.

Routine clinics were cancelled, we reduced our hours massively and I managed now to keep awake when I went down to see my in-laws.

The strike was more loosely organised than the current one and each group of doctors did their own thing.

I was in Burnley where we all were on strike but our colleagues in the Manchester teaching hospitals were more pressurised by their consultants with regards to their future references so they didn’t strike.

The Government caved in to the pressure from the strike and agreed to a new contract based on standard pay for a 40-hour week and an understanding that the rate of overtime pay should be determined by an independent body.

As a result Junior Doctors finally got overtime payments of 30 per cent, in other words less than a third of our normal hourly rate.

Clearly this undervalued junior doctors and unfortunately meant that there was no incentive for hospitals to employ more doctors when overtime was less than basic pay.

However it did mean because of my long hours my pay went up from £2,800 to £5,400 a year or £1 an hour!

I wish the current Junior Doctors the best in their efforts to get the Government to rethink their plans for stretching a five-day NHS to a seven-day NHS without the manpower to staff it.

You only have to see what problems the local hospitals are having in fully staffing their A&E units to see that the NHS needs the goodwill of the Junior Doctors to help it out of the deep hole that it is in.

Have a look at #mindtherotagap on Twitter to see how ALL hospitals are under pressure to get a quart out of a pint pot.