He is the medical man with 40,000 people who go to him when they are in trouble. He is the GP who has cases referred to him. He is, above all, the doctor you hear more on radio or television than any other or read about in the newspapers.
Laurence Buckman is chairman of the British Medical Association’s General Practitioners’ Committee — the body charged with looking after the interests of the country’s 40,000 GPs. From Tuesday to Thursday, he is at the BMA in London’s Tavistock Square. The other two days of the working week, he is at his Golders Green surgery, dealing with patients, many of whom are Jewish, and to whom he believes he owes his time and his loyalty. “I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t a doctor first,” he says.
He is regarded as a tough negotiator at the Department of Health. It was no coincidence that he was once dubbed “Red Robbo in a white coat”, a description he did not enjoy any more than when the editor of The Lancet said his behaviour was “shameful” and that he was guilty of “insulting cynicism about politicians and their constituents”. To which he responds: “If you put your head above the parapet, you must expect to be shot at.”
He dismisses suggestions that doctors earn too much money — the average GP salary is just over £79,000 — and do not work hard enough. “Last year’s story was that fat cat doctors were helping themselves to the money at the expense of the sick. That’s an outrageous slur. It was designed to undermine the GP contract with the government, which I am proud to negotiate.
“The ‘quality framework’ that earns us a lot of money, I negotiated that. There happen to be fewer dead people as a result of that contract. About 8,500 people are not dead, where you would have expected them to die.”
On the notion that doctors should be on call until 8pm in giant polyclinics, he says he already works past that hour, practically every night of the week. “How much longer do they want me to be in the surgery? I’m there after 8, but I’m not seeing patients at that time. I’m doing things for patients. Every time you ask me to do things for you, I try to do it. I’m 100 per cent behind the health service, but I’m not going to die for the NHS.”
Buckman got his first experience of NHS and Health Department bureaucracy in 1992 when he joined the GPs committee. Five years later, it was as a BMA negotiator that he made his first appearance in the media. Since then, and particularly from 2007 when he was elected committee chairman for a six-year term, he has been the man journalists turn to when issues concerning GPs come up. But if they ring when he is in the surgery, he tells them he has more important matters to deal with.
He uses his chairman’s salary, he says, to pay the three doctors who man his Golders Green surgery on the days when he is at Tavistock Square — days, incidentally, when he still does home visits. “All doctors do home visits. The idea that they don’t is a myth,” he says. What is not a myth is the part Buckman played the day in July 2005 when terrorists blew up a bus right outside the BMA offices, the walls of which were splattered with blood, with body parts lying all around.
He was one of 30 doctors on the premises — all waiting to attend a meeting he was to chair — who dealt with the victims being brought in, injured and dying, on boards, old doors, any kind of temporary stretcher. “It was like a scene from M*A*S*H,” he recalls.
Buckman does not come from a doctors’ family. He was born in 1954, the son of Toni and Allan Buckman, a “traditional” couple living in the London suburb of Kingsbury. He was educated at University College School — “one of the last poor boys”, there on a council scholarship. He became a doctor rather than follow his original plan to be a journalist because he was good at science. He trained at University College Hospital where he met his wife Elise — “over the dissecting table”. He became that doctor, she a dentist. They have two sons — one of them now studying to be a rabbi at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Buckman says that, like his parents, he regards himself as “traditional” — in Judaism, as well as in his work. “I am the most frum member of my family. I’m a shulgoer. I try to go every week and sometimes in the week, too.”
He has not met much antisemitism in his work, but he admits there is some, particularly among the contributors to the British Medical Journal, which constantly attacks Israel. “It would be all right to have Palestinian doctors talking about the profession — and it would be nice to have Israeli doctors doing the same — but to publish articles which have nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with an anti-Israel stance, I find very uncomfortable.”
Does he think being a GP is still a job for a Jewish boy? Not so many parents now talk about my son, the doctor. “I have students studying with me from Ben Gurion University in Israel and they, of course, are Jewish. The ones who come from the Royal Free in Hampstead rarely are.”
But what about the customers? “I have Arab patients who like the idea of being treated by a Jewish doctor, because they seem to have more faith in them.” And Jews, who like to walk away with a prescription or a letter to a specialist? They can, he admits, be difficult. “Being in north west London, many of them are Jewish and almost everyone has a cousin who’s a professor of medicine.”