“I genuinely believe that most people don’t want things to be this way. They feel frustrated. They want it to change.”
Like most of us in the UK, Dr Julia Patterson is angry. She is angry with the government for its catastrophic mishandling of the Covid pandemic. She is angry with a decade of cuts and stealth privatisation; of the constant fear that “the NHS is going to continue to be sold off in chunks to the highest bidder.”
Yet unlike most of us, the founder of , “a doctor-led campaigning organisation fighting for a better NHS for every doctor and every patient” is actually doing something about it. Last month, EveryDoctor, alongside , a “not-for-profit campaign organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public,” filed four cases at the High Court against the government. All the cases concern the procurement of PPE during the COVID pandemic.
The verdict is yet to be announced. A victory against the government, if won, would represent a landmark judgement, drawing a line in the sand and ensuring that the catastrophic mistakes of the past year are never allowed to happen again.
Patterson qualified in 2010 and was working in London when she became involved in the debate around contracts for junior doctors. “What became very apparent,” she tells me, “was that the government was going to push through a contract – which we felt was unfair to the staff and also unsafe to patients – where we would be working longer hours for less pay.”
While the junior doctor contract issue dominated headlines, Patterson explains that much of the medical profession had wider concerns about the “long-term sustainability” of an NHS under threat from privatisation and chronic underfunding. She and a group of other concerned NHS professionals realised that there wasn’t a Facebook group for all doctors in the UK: “There wasn’t one place where we were hearing all the voices.” The result was a Facebook forum called The Political Mess, a community of online doctors with 25,000 members to date.
This community of doctors was instrumental in bringing – a junior doctor charged with medical manslaughter – to the High Court in 2018, to appeal against her being struck off the medical register. For Patterson, the landmark case was pivotal: “the situation flagged up a lot of problems in the workforce and the system that people work within, and the fact that doctors who are under increasing pressure are more likely to make mistakes.”
Raising the volume
Realising she could do more to fight for the future of UK healthcare, and to raise awareness of the impossible situation facing many NHS staff, Patterson took a pause from her psychiatry training and set up EveryDoctor in January 2019. “I realised that if we had a sustainable non-profit organisation employing staff, we would have much more ability to speak up when things went wrong.”
Today, Patterson admits it’s been a learning curve. “We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any resources, we didn’t know any journalists. We didn’t have anything, really. We didn’t have a Twitter profile. We had to really learn everything from the ground up.”
Adding fuel to the fire was sustained criticism from within her own industry, pressurising her to take a step back and be less outspoken. “I started receiving threats from people about the nature of the work that I was doing, that I was speaking up and that I would be seen as a troublemaker. I was advised by several people that if I worked in the NHS, I’d be disciplined and referred to the GMC for the work I’m doing.”
She admits that this was “hugely intimidating,” but remained convinced that there was an urgent need for a movement like the one she was building with EveryDoctor. “A campaign organisation like ours, which has sprung up out of nowhere, is needed,” she says firmly. “It offers a different voice, coming from a different angle.”
With limited funds and two small children, Patterson and her family made the decision to move from London to her husband’s native Ireland, where childcare was more affordable and she could practise psychiatry while regularly flying back to build and grow the EveryDoctor campaign. Then COVID hit.
“At the beginning of March, we realised that we should return to London,” Patterson tells me. Her husband, an intensive care consultant, was needed on the frontline and worrying reports were starting to come to her through the EveryDoctor network about a shortage of adequate PPE.
Over a year later, EveryDoctor has grown into a force to be reckoned with. Patterson herself has over 150k followers on Twitter, which has been instrumental in bringing the voices of medical professionals across the UK to a wider audience.
“We started speaking up and lobbying NHS England for basic protections that could support staff,” she explains. “Things like PPE, but also sick pay for temporary members of staff, death in service benefits for temporary members of staff whose families wouldn’t receive anything if they died of Covid. Eye protection because early on in the pandemic, most healthcare workers weren’t given any eye protection – which we managed to secure.”
EveryDoctor also began briefing MPs, helping keep them informed on what was actually happening on the frontline. This was also an opportunity to highlight serious issues, such as the severity of COVID-related illness among BAME staff and the mental health impact of the pandemic.
Hancock and the High Court
Which brings us to the latest and biggest battle of all: the High Court cases.
“We were approached by the Good Law Project who were already looking into the procurement deals and were concerned by what they were finding,” Patterson says. “They were looking for co-plaintiffs to take these cases to the High Court. We agreed to come on board and through the investigation we discovered the VIP channel that showed that ministers were fast-tracking friends and associates. We found a whole number of procurement cases which were, in our eyes, inappropriate.”
Patterson explains that while this case is important in terms of “the corruption and the public money wasted,” for her, the reason EveryDoctor got involved was the simple but devastating reality that “a lot of frontline healthcare workers died because they weren’t provided with proper equipment.”
She cites Exercise Cygnus, a government exercise carried out in 2016 aiming to test the potential impact of a pandemic on the UK, which concluded that “the UK’s preparedness and response in terms of its plans, policies and capabilities is currently insufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic.”
The report, which was eventually released last year after sustained pressure from campaigners and the public, included a host of recommendations to safeguard against the potential impact a pandemic could have on the country. “And it looks like a lot of that didn’t happen,” Patterson sighs.
I’m interested to know what kind of impact these cases could make, if the result goes against the government. Patterson refers me to Dr Megan Smith, a barrister and consultant anaesthetist on the EveryDoctor team.
“The Court is being asked to make a declaration that the award of contracts through the VIP lane, without adequate financial due diligence and without proper technical assurance checks was irrational and unlawful,” Smith tells me.
“That is the only remedy available in cases of this nature. It’s not possible to undo the contracts or get the public’s money back. The hope is that, with a declaration of unlawfulness, the Government cannot and will not act in such a way again – or at least if they do, then they should expect to be sued again.
“As healthcare workers, we want to ensure that we are never put in such a precarious position by a government again and we hope that a declaration to this effect will help to protect us going forward.”
Fighting for a future
Looking at the huge practical and emotional load that Patterson has taken on this year, I wonder whether the move from doctor to activist is one she ever questions. Her answer is simple – that in the end, she didn’t have a choice.
“When I was balancing campaigning and working, to be perfectly honest, it was on my mind constantly,” she says. “I struggled to see a long-term future, working as a psychiatrist and balancing this because the community that I’m part of, they mean so much to me. They’re a group of people who are so passionate, so driven and they’ve gone to medical school wanting to do a good job for the UK public. I feel like they’re being let down so badly.”
Today, Patterson firmly believes that “the future of the NHS is in peril.”
This goes far beyond COVID – this is a fundamental threat to the very foundations of our health service. “There’s a feeling that the government has made a decision that the NHS is going to be privatised and that people are going to profit from [it]”, Patterson continues. “That’s happening in various ways already. And unless there is a movement to push back against this, we are not going to have an NHS.”
“Every single winter, there is a winter crisis,” she says sadly. “We just look after patients in the corridors. It’s not safe. It’s not the way that the NHS should be running.”
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