Reid tries to end doctors' dispute

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Hospital consultants were offered an olive branch by the Health Secretary yesterday in an attempt to end the eight-month contracts dispute that threatens to disrupt the NHS.

John Reid, who replaced Alan Milburn as Health Secrety in the cabinet reshuffle two weeks ago, said he might be prepared to "tweak" senior doctors' contracts to meet their concerns.

His remarks, on the eve of the British Medical Association's annual conference in Torquay, were timed to defuse tensions that have been mounting since consultants threatened to call a ballot on the first work-to-rule in the NHS for 30 years.

After flatly rejecting their demands 10 days ago, Mr Reid adopted a more conciliatory tone and offered to meet consultants' leaders on Friday.

"The consultants say they have six problems," the Health Secretary told The Frost Programme. "I want to listen to them. I value very much their professionalism, their integrity and their input."

"I will listen to what they have to say about the six points they have in reserve, that they have difficulties with, if I can shift on some of those, if I can tweak."

The concession is the first sign of warmth in the icy relations between the two sides since consultants in England overwhelmingly rejected a pay award, worth an average 15 per cent over three years, last October, because of strings including restrictions on private practice. Consultants in Scotland, where there are fewer opportunities for private work, accepted the contract.

The collapse of the deal in England after two years of negotiations infuriated Mr Milburn and embarrassed the BMA, which had backed it. But consultants were angered by increasing pressures to meet targets and the loss of their professional autonomy.

The six points to which Mr Reid referred initially puzzled the BMA, which saw only three as priority: curbs on private practice, compulsory evening and weekend work, and the lack of acceptable appeals procedures for disputes over working patterns.

Paul Miller, chairman of the BMA consultants committee, described Mr Reid's offer as encouraging. "I think people will still be cautious and sceptical and want to see results, but it is an important first step," he said.

The 500 representatives attending the BMA conference are expected to criticise the Government's proposals on foundation hospitals and attack the "target driven" culture.

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