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Junior doctors across New Zealand walked off the job on Tuesday, commencing a two-day strike following a breakdown in union talks with District Health Board (DHB) representatives. The Resident Doctors Association (RDA) is protesting the conditions in which doctors are being made to work, which are considered by many to be unsafe for both doctor and patient health. The strike came about as a result of failed mediation last week between the RDA and DHB, and places a spotlight on the current government’s difficulties in delivering on its promise to invest in social services and reduce inequality.
The strike meant that thousands of surgeries and non-essential appointments were cancelled, and the government issued a notice urging people to reserve hospital visits for only the most severe emergencies. “They want to have control over when we work, how we work, and where we work,” said Dr. Deborah Powell, national secretary of the RDA. The collapse of negotiations that had lasted for almost a year reflects the broader issue of DHB’s management, and is a sign that the government needs to step in quickly. DHB spokesman Dr. Peter Bramley issued a sharp rebuke to union representatives’ claims that DHB was not negotiating in good faith, and reiterated DHB’s claim that it is a good employer. The way in which negotiations were extended last year has now made the situation urgent, as the Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA), which governs the working conditions of many of the country’s doctors, expires on February 28. Particularly worrying are the claims that this process has been intentionally drawn out to allow the contract to lapse and give DHB the opportunity to remove some of the rights of union members.
Pressure on the government to address the concerns of doctors is growing. After the end of the most recent strike on Thursday, it was announced that another 48-hour strike was planned for January 29 and 30, should no further progress be made in negotiations. Reuters reported that “[t]he centre-left government’s traditional union support base says sluggish wage growth and soaring living costs have left workers struggling, with teachers, nurses and court officials taking action last year to demand pay hikes.” The doctors’ situation is therefore not unique, but it is the one that poses the greatest risk to public health. RDA president Dr. Courtney Brown commented that “junior doctors often work 15 hours straight with no guarantee of rest or safety.” The current situation in which the doctors are forced to work jeopardizes the quality of care that they are able to deliver, and is a danger to public health and safety. Considering that doctors provide an essential service, it is difficult to understand why the government doesn’t invest in them more and prevent them from working in deplorable conditions. Doctors have to train for many years to become qualified, and are some of the country’s best and brightest. The way in which they are treated doesn’t recognize their work and talent, and if conditions do not change there is a real risk that some may be put off the profession, ultimately resulting in a shortage of doctors to meet the country’s growing needs.
The conditions in which doctors work is a blight on the current government’s prioritization of wellbeing, and is something that must be addressed. Good faith and understanding is something that must be added to the discussions, because the current ‘tit-for-tat’ approach adopted by DHB is only making things worse. DHB and the government cannot ignore the demands of the doctors who are striking because they feel they have no other choice. New Zealand’s economy continues to grow at a steady pace, but this growth will be for naught if people are struggling to get by and are forced to work extreme hours just to make a living. The way in which the situation is currently being handled goes against the very ideology of the current government and the principles and promises for which many voted. It is imperative that this is addressed, if for no other reason than to recognize the fantastic service provided by doctors in this country.