Jeremy Hunt 'personally vetoed deal that would have ended junior doctors strike'

Officials from both NHS Employers and the Department of Health 'saw the offer as an opportunity to resolve the dispute', sources say

Jeremy Hunt vetoed a deal to end the junior doctor dispute which was supported by the NHS’ own negotiators, it has been claimed.  

According to sources close to the British Medical Association (BMA), a proposal that addressed pay for working evenings and Saturdays – the last major contentious issue – and which was cost neutral for the Government, was blocked despite negotiators from the NHS Employers organisation viewing it as an opportunity to resolve the dispute. 

The new contract model, set out by the union, would have seen premium pay rates for Saturdays reduced, but would have crucially acknowledged that Saturdays should not be considered as ordinary working days.

Officials from both NHS Employers and the Department of Health “saw the offer as an opportunity to resolve the dispute,” the source told The Independent

“The one person who would not agree was Jeremy Hunt. Even though the NHS Employers and DH teams thought this was a solution he said no,” they said. 

“Negotiations have completely broken down,” the source added. “There are no more dates planned for talks. The BMA wants to continue negotiating but the other side have walked away.”

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The chief executive of the NHS Employers organisation said the BMA had not made any “substantive proposals” since the new year (Corbis)

It is understood the proposed contract model was rejected at the end of January, precipitating the BMA’s declaration of a second strike, which will commence at 8am tomorrow, with tens of thousands of junior doctors in England set to walk out from all but emergency care for 24 hours. 

A Department of Health spokesperson said the claims were “completely untrue”, maintaining that the BMA had “continuously refused to discuss unsocial hours pay”. Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Employers organisation said the BMA had not made any “substantive proposals” since the New Year. 

The Government is determined not to yield ground on its plans reclassify Saturdays as normal working hours, as it would set a precedent for contract negotiations with other NHS staffing groups, including nurses, who are expecting to enter negotiations about new contracts later this year. 

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Hundreds of London's doctors took to the streets for the second time last week in support of the British Medical Association (Corbis)

Sources familiar with the Government’s approach to the junior doctor contract negotiations have told The Independent that one of ministers’ priorities is to reduce the cost of NHS staffing bill by bringing contracts into line with many in the private sector which make no distinction between weekend and weekday pay rates.

Health minister Ben Gummer told MPs that the Government was “fast-approaching” the point at which it would have to impose a new contract on junior doctors, regardless of the progress of negotiations. Mr Gummer also said latest estimates showed 2,884 operations have been cancelled as a result of tomorrow’s strike. 

Mr Hunt has described imposition as his “nuclear option”. However, with newly qualified junior doctors set to start work in August, the NHS is running out of time to implement any new contract. Sir David Dalton, the hospital chief executive leading negotiations on behalf of the Government, has said that an agreement is needed by “mid-February” for “effective implementation” of the new contract.  

Imposition would likely infuriate junior doctors and risk a prolonged period of intermittent strike action. Sources within the junior doctor campaign group have said medics are willing to continue with industrial action well into 2017. 

Junior doctors message to Jeremy Hunt

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander has written to Mr Hunt urging him to make concession on Saturday working, and warning against an imposed contract. 

“Such a decision on your part could lead to protracted industrial action and widespread anger among other NHS staff at a time when morale is already at rock bottom,” she wrote. “All that can be done to avoid this, must be done.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “The BMA has continuously refused to discuss unsocial hours pay, despite their agreement to talk about this as part of ACAS in November and the progress we’ve made on safety, education and training.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “The Secretary of State has supported NHS Employers in making substantive proposals which address the concerns of junior doctors.  We have not since the New Year seen a response from the BMA which seeks compromise on these issues.  We continue to want to talk with the BMA to agree a contract that is fair and safe for doctors and patients.”   

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