English GPs on strike over pensions and Oh Yes! Liz Taylor

By Allison Pearson

It was the week in which half of all teachers admitted that they take
food into school to feed hungry children and a poll revealed that
seven million working British adults are just one bill away from
financial disaster. It’s not all bad news, folks. Paupers’ graves are
booming. There has been a record rise in that melancholy and damning
symbol of human loneliness and destitution.

So, dare I suggest this is perhaps not the ideal day for a bunch of
middle-class professionals to go on strike because a bit of icing is
about to be scraped off their pension cake? The thought of such spoilt
behaviour from anyone is enough to make you queasy. It’s the fact that
today’s strikers are doctors that really makes you want to lunge for
the grey cardboard hospital spitoon.

Oh, those poor doctors, cancelling long-awaited hip replacements with
the heart-rending cry, “How on earth am I supposed to rub along on a
pension of £60,000 a year?”

Can’t find your physician? Just follow Groucho Marx’s advice: “I’m not
feeling very well – I need a doctor immediately. Ring the nearest golf
course.”

Last night, ministers made a last-ditch plea for the strike to be
called off. Indeed the whole thing seems to be symptomatic of some
greater malady. What is happening to the pillars of our society, the
very people who should be setting an example at this treacherous time?
Politicians are despised, Parliament contaminated with self-interest
and greed. Journalists are in the dock at the Leveson inquiry with
their fishnets around their ankles. The Church picks meaningless
fights with itself while its influence fades and congregations shrink.
Judges refuse to deport foreign villains, thus failing to protect
innocent people. The police looked like lager louts when they booed
Home Secretary Theresa May at their last conference (over proposed
changes to generous working practices, naturally).

Who is there left to look up to? The Queen, obviously, plus the Armed
Forces (facing a potentially lethal 20 per cent cut without a murmur),
Sir David Attenborough and, yes, the medical profession. Doctors,
whether they like it or not, are seen as different. Not just
different, but better. Religious belief is no longer a given, but
faith in one’s GP is as sacred a trust as we have left. The poet W H
Auden got it right: “A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with
human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is
either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or like the physician and the
psychologist, an artist. This means that in order to be a good doctor
a man must also have a good character; that is to say, whatever
weakness and foibles he may have, he must love his fellow human beings
in the concrete and desire their good before his own.”

Just so. To desire the patient’s good before his own. Not to take
strike action and ignore all but emergency cases so that doctors can
still retire on half pay aged 60 instead of 62; that will seem like
science fiction to private-sector workers who fear they will have to
die in harness to avoid that pauper’s grave. Doctors should take a
look in their local supermarket and see how many nicely spoken people,
well into their sixties, have started jobs on the check-out lately.
These are the genteel poor whose weekly pension entitlement is about
the same as Jimmy Carr’s annual tax bill.

The columnist Matthew Parris caused fury at the weekend when he
questioned the central importance of GPs, whom he called “glorified
receptionists”. I read Matthew’s article and thought, Now, there’s a
fit and well man with no projectile-vomiting nine-year-old to worry
about. When you have a young family or a chronically sick relative,
the truth is you see the GP more than your best friend. The family
doctor is not some idle gatekeeper. If you’re lucky, they’re a
world-class goalkeeper, seldom getting the glory, but making the big
save when it counts. Spotting that cancerous mole, say, or knowing
when a cluster headache turns into a cluster bomb.

The Daughter has been ill on and off for well over a year now and,
every time I take her to our superb local surgery, I feel a mixture of
gratitude and relief for the expertise and practical kindness we find
there. All over the country, I’m sure, there are lazy, arrogant
exceptions, but, for the most part, our doctors are a priceless
national asset. No wonder a MORI poll last year rated medicine as the
most trusted profession. Some 88 per cent of UK adults said they could
rely on doctors to tell the truth.

That’s why today’s strike is a self-inflicted wound by people who have
their work cut out healing the accidental kind. Why are doctors
opposed to a new contract that, in all honesty, goes some way to
balancing the pay deal of 2004, when GPs’ salaries soared by more than
50 per cent to an average of £110,000, in return for less work?
Negotiated with magnificent ineptitude by the Blair government, the
deal brought to mind Elizabeth Taylor’s comment on her million-dollar
fee for playing Cleopatra: “If they are —-ing stupid enough to offer
me a million dollars, I sure as hell am not —-ing stupid enough to
turn it down.”

You can’t blame doctors, on the Liz Taylor principle, for accepting
terms and conditions that made them the highest-paid GPs in the world,
with the ability to retire in comfort at 60. You can blame them for
jeopardising patient safety, however briefly, and holding out against
perfectly reasonable corrective financial surgery at a time when the
entire country is hurting.

Frankly, I refuse to believe that the doctors I know, terrific,
dedicated men and women all, will want any part of this shabby,
grasping protest. They should disown the British Medical Association
for bringing their profession into disrepute, for betraying their
deepest instincts. A real doctor can go on holiday, but never on
strike; their work and their life are one. There are some things we
have to go on believing in, or our prognosis really is terminal.