Striking junior doctors at the Countess of Chester Hospital say the row over seven day working is against the background of a funding crisis at their hospital and across the NHS.

Doctors were this morning (Wednesday , March 9) striking for the third time at the Countess and across England over health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s decision to impose a new contract after talks broke down with the British Medical Association (BMA).

Mr Hunt wants routine operations carried at weekends as well as during the week in addition to the basic emergency service but the BMA says that without extra resources the same number of staff will be spread too thinly across the week.

Local BMA reps Namal Rupasinghe and Dr James Warwick, picketing outside the Countess during a 48-hour national stoppage which began at 8am, say the bigger picture is that the NHS is already struggling. One of the pickets held up a sign saying ‘Honk to save the NHS’.

Asked if he thought the current situation was safe for patients, Mr Rupasinghe, a general surgical registrar, replied ‘just about’, but added: “But if it gets any worse it’s getting to the point where it’s not manageable.”

He said this winter was ‘definitely the worst year’ during his eight years in the profession.

Striking junior doctors outside the Countess of Chester Hospital

“People are getting older, people are getting sicker and there are more people now in this country. You cannot cut the budget and expect to give a better service,” added the junior doctor, who gave the example that he had previously been one of three doctors expected to cover an eight-doctor rota.

The union rep said the pressure on him and his colleagues was resulting in a loss of goodwill and many were moving abroad or leaving the profession altogether.

A big problem was cuts in social care in the community impacting on support for older people and the vulnerable causing more individuals to end up in hospital.

Mr Rupasinghe added: “You would be surprised what I have seen over the last couple of weeks that I have not seen in years.”

And while the strike had been blamed for the cancellation of operations, ‘a lot’ of procedures had been put off over the past month because of a shortage of beds said Mr Rupasinghe who fears the NHS is heading down the road of becoming an ‘emergency service only’.

“The main issue is this contract is distracting away from the problems really,” he added.

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His union colleague Dr Warwick, a year one foundation doctor, agreed and went on to explain that social care cuts were not just leading to extra patients but also discharge problems in ‘trying to get them home again’ following treatment which impacted on the limited number of beds.

Dr Warwick said the Countess had a good reputation but added: “Unfortunately a few weeks ago A&E was among the 30 worst performing A&Es in the country in terms of the waiting times. I was on call the weekend before last helping seeing patients coming through who were being admitted. It was purely because all the beds were full in the hospital. There was nowhere for people to go. It’s all backing up.

“There were staff sitting there, waiting for somewhere to see the patients.”

There are fears the NHS is being lined up for privatisation under a system where only those who can afford health insurance will be able to access the full range of treatments.

Dr Warwick commented: “Unfortunately, whether or not they want it, if things carry on the way they are, it’s going to be the only option.”