Plain Speaking

Published: Apr 28 , 2016
Author: Stephen White

I am sitting by the hospital bedside of an elderly relative who fell last week and broke her hip. It is Tuesday, the first day of this week’s junior doctor’s strike. The ward is functioning normally as far as I can see; there is a normal complement of doctors on duty, but unusually there are also groups of more senior consultants who appear to be hunting in packs of 3 or 4, perhaps for safety. There was no picket line when I came into the hospital and it was as difficult to find a car parking space today as it has been all week which suggests that most outpatient appointments are proceeding as usual.

The level of care is very good, and in my layman’s opinion there are more than adequate staffing levels on the ward. The point is that I have been visiting every day since last Thursday, and it has been no different day by day, including over the weekend. True, the hospital lobby area (and the car park!) was quieter on Saturday and Sunday because there were fewer outpatients, but for patients who are ‘in hospital’ it seems that the 7 day NHS is working fine.

The rhetoric from both sides of the doctor’s dispute reminds me of the rhetoric from both sides of the EU referendum. The language is florid, the promises, aspirations, threats and concerns are inflated, and the objective quality of the ‘facts’ is not robust. Same old, same old, but we form our opinions on what we see and hear, and these distortions don’t help.

The junior doctors dispute will only be negotiated to a satisfactory conclusion when the compromise reached by the parties wins the approval of people who pay for and use the service, in other words the great English public (the strike doesn’t affect the rest of the UK). Which is why for both sides the battle to win hearts and minds is so important. But increasing public scepticism and a weariness of the deceits and exaggerations makes me think that their strategies are counterproductive. The doctors, represented by the BMA, claim that the strike is about protecting service levels. The government claims that the strike is really about improving facilities at the weekend. These are issues of course, but we the people know that both sides are trying to fool us, and maybe in the process are fooling themselves as well – this dispute is ultimately about money. How do we know this? Because we know that if the government put more money on the table to cover enhanced rates of pay on Saturdays, the BMA would settle; they have effectively said so.

Negotiators in the public sector rely on their PR to influence public opinion. They need to become more aware that our ability to see through their half-truths increases with exposure. Plain speaking by the protagonists would enable us to take sides more easily. As a result there would be a greater likelihood of a large-PEAKING majority public opinion rather than a more equally split view. And that is likely to spur the parties on to better and faster settlements.

Stephen White


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