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Peter Prowse: Junior doctors' strike - where do talks go from here?

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Published: 26/04/16

Junior doctors across England have walked out for the fifth time this year as the bitter dispute over pay and conditions continues.

Crucially though, this is the first time junior medics will not provide emergency cover - which is an unprecedented move.

This shows a clear amplification in the dispute and signals that there is no resolution in sight.

Plans by the Department of Health to impose new contracts on junior doctors this summer and a perceived lack of negotiation by the government has led to a historically passive group of professionals, who are dedicated to the NHS, to take this drastic action.

National strikes on this scale are unusual in modern times; indeed it is the first time junior doctors have felt compelled to take action over pay and conditions for more than 40 years.

And the first ever all out strike by junior doctors in the history of the NHS.

The previous dispute in 1975, over similar government proposals, led to walkouts between January and April and the closure of a number of accident and emergency departments.

Junior doctors in England in 1975 felt dissatisfaction over pay, with medics feeling undervalued and overworked - as they do now.

As a specialist in employment relations, it's interesting to see how poorly these negotiations have been handled.

In good negotiations there needs to be trust between parties and a willingness to reach a compromise.

In this negotiation there has been little trust, almost no compromise and a lot of public name calling which is not helpful.

Social media has been a key driver for how publicly these negotiations have been played out from doctors sending messages to the health minister on Twitter to posting videos online documenting long, hard shifts.

It has also helped to gauge public opinion which has been resolutely supportive of the doctors and the strike action.

However, a poll for the BBC today showed support has fallen (from 65 per cent to 57 per cent) with the decision to take all out action.

It will be interesting to see if support wains further if the scale of disruption the government suggest this latest strike will cause actually transpires.

One thing is certain, the battle between the government and the BMA shows no signs of abating and it appears there is little intention from either camp to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The most likely outcome is that contract changes are imposed this summer which will lead to a demoralised workforce and could result in scores of junior doctors leaving England - for the rest of the UK or further afield.

It should also be noted that consultants will be the next group entering into negotiations with the government when they prepare their case for the doctors and dentists pay review later in 2016.

Whatever happens there is a long and bumpy road ahead before the government and the BMA reach any suitable agreement.

The author:

Professor Peter Prowse

Peter Prowse is Professor in Human Resource Management and Employment Relations.

"In this negotiation there has been little trust, almost no compromise and a lot of public name calling."