Industrial action by doctors in France was stepped up on Monday as the strike entered its second week.
With GPs and specialists having started their strike on December 23rd, they were joined by the nationwide organization SOS Médecins, which runs an emergency helpline as well as out-of-hours home visits by doctors at nights and on weekends.
The organization, which has around 1,000 doctors on its books at 64 different centres across the country, joined the movement in protest at aspects of France’s new health reform bill which is set to be discussed by parliament next year.
Reports in the French press say that up to 80 percent of general practitioner’s surgeries were closed due to the strike.
The fear is that the strike will put a huge strain on Accident and Emergency (A&E) wards in the country’s hospitals.
Although France’s health minister Marisol Touraine insists that nightmare scenario has not happened, SOS Médecins are reporting a different story.
“The emergency wards are overwhelmed, despite what the minister says,” said Dominique Ringard from SOS Medecins.
France 3 TV reported that visits to the A&E ward in the city of Amiens had doubled or tripled since the strike began with Le Monde reporting that the hospital in the town of Roubaix was also overwhelmed.
Ringard said there was a similar tale in other towns across the country.
The emergency services in the Oise department of northern France "are on the brink", he said.
“Unfortunately there’s no flu outbreak otherwise we would have crumbled. The end of the year as always is a busy period, given that doctors are on leave,” said Ringard
"But with the doctors also on strike, it’s an explosive cocktail,” he added.
The government responded to the organization’s decision to join the strike action by forcing it to supply a minimum service, which Ringard described as “an act of revenge”.
However Christophe Prudhomme, the spokesman of the union representing A&E doctors, said the “situation was tense” but argued it was much like every winter.
“It’s the same disaster as usual,” he told L’Express newspaper.
The main bone of contention in the proposed health reform centres around a change to the system of payments.
Jean-Paul Ortiz, president of the Confederation of French Medical Unions said doctors are unhappy with the proposed compulsory third-party payments - which would see doctors bill the state and private insurance companies for patients' visits rather than the patients paying up front themselves, as happens now.
He said: "This is an expensive process that will take up their time. More generally, doctors are seeing a breaking up of their profession, which we have seen with the suggestion that certain vaccinations be carried out by pharmacists."
Another controversial inclusion is the capping of the base rate for the consultation fee, which has stayed at €23 since 2011 (although doctors are able to charge more), which the union describes as “unworthy of the required skills and insufficient”.