Thousands of junior doctors across England have started their first bout of strike action in protest over new NHS contracts. The medics are picketing hospitals throughout the country and IBTimes UK visited one of the demonstrations at St Thomas' Hospital in London, just a stone's throw from parliament.

The British Medical Association (BMA) picket was supported by other unions – including the Public and Commercial Services Union – and Green Party grandees such as Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, who joined in with the demonstration. Brighton Pavilion MP Lucas told IBTimes UK that health minister Jeremy Hunt should rethink the government's approach to the dispute.

"[The junior doctors] aren't taking this action just for themselves, this is not just about a fairer contract for doctors, but it's also about patient safety and that is the focus that is coming across this morning," Lucas argued.

The Green MP also accused the government of conducting a "campaign of misinformation" over Hunt's 11% pay offer to the medics. "Hunt keeps insisting that all doctors are going to be better off – that simply isn't the case – and also for him to stop suggesting that doctors are not already working weekends, for example. Many of them do."

The action comes after David Cameron warned that the industrial action would be "damaging". But despite the last-ditch plea from the prime minister to avert the strike, the BMA members have gone ahead with the protests.

Junior doctors picket
Green leader Natalie Bennett alongside activists Ian Silvera/IBTimes UK

Meanwhile, Sandwell Hospital in the West Midlands has declared a level-four incident and requested that its junior doctors return to work. However, the BMA has urged its members to continue striking until NHS England has confirmed the incident.

What is the dispute over a new contract all about?

Jeremy Corbyn has posted a message of support to the junior doctors on his Facebook page, describing the government's actions as "nothing short of appalling".

The Labour leader added: "No NHS worker takes lightly the decision to strike, but the blame must be laid at the door of this government for the way it has treated doctors and now seeks to smear them in the press. It is time for this government to apologise to junior doctors and negotiate a fair deal that gets our NHS working again."

But a spokesman for the left-winger told IBTimes UK that Corbyn would not be visiting any of the BMA pickets. The office of Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, said she would not be going to one of the demonstrations either.

Labour veteran Dennis Skinner, however, was on his way to the St Thomas' Hospital protest when IBTimes UK bumped into the left-winger on Westminster Bridge. The Bolsover MP said he wanted to support the medics since NHS doctors had helped him through major surgeries, including a heart by-pass and hip replacement.

BMA strike dates

  • 8am Tuesday, 12 January to 8am Wednesday, 13 January – (24 hours) emergency care only will be provided
  • 8am Tuesday, 26 January to 8am, Thursday 28 January – (48 hours) emergency care only will be provided
  • 8am to 5pm, Wednesday 10 February – full withdrawal of labour