BMA chief blasts poaching of overseas doctors by NHS

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The leader of Britain's doctors accused the Government yesterday of presiding over a public health disaster by failing to curb the explosion in sexually transmitted diseases and resisting a public smoking ban.

The leader of Britain's doctors accused the Government yesterday of presiding over a public health disaster by failing to curb the explosion in sexually transmitted diseases and resisting a public smoking ban.

James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, also attacked the NHS's continued reliance on overseas doctors, taken from countries whose medical needs were greater than Britain's, which he described as a "shameful record of exploitation".

Giving his keynote speech to the BMA's annual conference in Llandudno, Mr Johnson sought to present the welfare of patients and the NHS as the association's central concern after years of damaging internal rows over new contracts for consultants and GPs.

He said the rapid rise in sexually transmitted diseases was an "avoidable scandal". Cases of gonorrhoea have doubled in five years, syphilis is making a return and HIV infections are at record levels.

"Nearly 90 years ago, at the time of the Great War, we instituted a service for what was then called venereal disease that was free, rapid and totally confidential. Nearly a century later in some parts of the country patients turn up at a genito-urinary medicine clinic only to be given an appointment in six weeks time. What use is that?".

Extra cash had been secured for the sexual health service but it was "nowhere near enough". Alluding to the walk-in clinics that have been set up for ordinary health problems, he added: "This is an area where walk-in clinics and same-day service would really help."

Mr Johnson also criticised the Health Secretary, John Reid, for his attitude to smoking. As a vascular surgeon from Halton Hospital, Runcorn, which serves a deprived area, he said he frequently had to amputate the legs of chronic smokers whose circulation had been irreparably damaged.

Commending the Government for banning tobacco advertising, he said it could not rest on its laurels. "It must take the next step and ban smoking in enclosed public spaces. It is simply not good enough for John Reid to wring his hands like some latter-day Marie Antoinette and say 'let the poor smoke'."

Mr Johnson reserved some of his most savage criticism for the long tradition of poaching doctors and nurses from the developing world to help shore up the health service.

"We have relied on other countries to fill our manpower gaps - both for nurses and for doctors. As the fourth largest economy in the world we are still doing so - still taking doctors away from countries like South Africa and nurses from the Philippines who need them more than we do. It's a shameful record of exploitation. Surely after over half a century of the NHS we should be producing enough doctors to look after our patients," he said.

Although there had been a big expansion of medical school capacity and 32,000 extra doctors had joined the profession since 1997, it was nowhere near enough because of changing work patterns.

New curbs on working hours imposed by Europe would require an extra 3,700 junior doctors this year rising to almost 10,000 extra when the limit drops to 48 hours a week in five years time, just to stand still.

In addition, an increasing proportion of doctors - 61 per cent of medical students - are women, who spend more of their careers working part time. Male doctors, too, wanted more flexible options, he said.

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