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Thawing the NHS's Winter of Discontent

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Nurses protest cuts to bursaries Nurses protest cuts to bursaries

Is the NHS experiencing its own moment of 1970s-style union militancy? This week we’ve seen junior doctors set down scalpels, and nurses march on Downing Street to protest against scrapping bursaries.

Is this history repeating itself? Tory governments have toughed out industrial disputes before, but this feels different. For starters, the junior doctor’s strike attracted huge public support. According to Ipsos Mori, 66% of the public backed them, to 16% against.

True, the smiling, young medics were a stark contrast to the grim yeomanry of, say, an RMT picket, but it’s deeper than that. There’s the British love for the NHS, but also the realisation that the RCN and the BMA are not Bolshie institutions. If the inner Bob Crow of these folks has been awakened, something is going seriously awry.

When governments were facing down workers on the wrong side of industrial history 30 or so years ago, they could win a war of attrition. But today’s battles are being fought with people with more cards to play. The most valuable asset of the NHS is its workforce, with its highly transferable skills. Striking or marching is doing the government a noisy favour. The worst thing they could do is silently walk away.

It’s time to go back to the negotiating table and give the piggy bank another shake. Saving pennies today could leave the NHS without the people it vitally needs for a better tomorrow.

Mike Shallcross, acting editor, Independent Nurse

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