About a hundred protesters blocked traffic for about 30 minutes outside a nearby GP practice. They were demonstrating against plans to embed Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) job advisers with family doctors in an effort to return long-term sickness benefit claimants – in particular those with mental health problems - back to work.
Coral Jones, a GP in Hackney, the neighbouring borough, said: “What for me is the most shocking thing about this is when we read the minutes of the meeting where they agreed this pilot – it says there will be no evaluation of this pilot before it’s rolled out nationally. The thing about making major changes to people’s healthcare is that it should be evidence based. I think it’s about putting pressure on people and sanctioning them. It’s part of the ideology which says people with disabilities and mental health problems really aren’t as sick as they say they are. They fail to appreciate how many things make people’s mental health conditions worse.”
Mona Kamal, a junior doctor specialising in psychiatry, said she felt it was crucial that the medical profession supported patients by opposing such austerity inspired policies. “As a psychiatrist I have seen firsthand the impact of these austerity cuts on psychiatric patients in particular,” Kamal said. “This new move of bringing the punitive culture of welfare sanctions into what should be a safe, therapeutic environment for patients, I think that’s completely wrong.” Kamal added: “Doctors have a lot of attention on them at the moment and I think it is important that we speak up for our service users as well because these attacks are not just attacks on doctors, they are in the wider context of austerity. I think it’s important while we have the chance not just to take on this fight as our own, but to speak up for our patients.”
Roy Bard, from the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said, “People generally come to a surgery because they want treatment, not because they want a job…” He said job coaching was not a treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which assesses therapies and provides guidelines for NHS use.
Denise McKenna, also with MHRN, said she was very concerned at the scheme’s stated aim of allowing employment coaches to write directly on patients’ medical records. She added: “Many of these [patients] are people who have already been through the trauma of the work capability assessment. They may have had to appeal and they are living in fear of the possibility of losing their benefits. They need their benefits to live, they are not in any fit state to work. The thing that upsets me the most is the fact that doctors are going to be raising this subject with their patients regardless of what that patient’s experience with the DWP and the work capability assessment has been. People will become frightened to interact with doctors because people are already watching what they say and people will become paranoid. That could have drastic consequences. Someone could be harbouring cancer and not have that detected. It is very serious, it’s a very serious situation. We think eventually it will become compulsory. They are treating unemployment as a mental health condition and unemployment is a consequence of not a cause of mental ill-health.”