Working hours law 'could stop NHS tackling swine flu surge'

Surgeons say European directive should be bypassed in the event of a major crisis
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Fears that the NHS may be overwhelmed by the swine flu epidemic have led to calls for the Government to be prepared to suspend new rules that forbid hospital doctors to work more than 48 hours a week.

The Royal College of Surgeons said that new European regulations on working hours which come into effect at the end of this week should be postponed if there were signs that the health service was beginning to buckle under the strain of swine flu.

About 100,000 people a week in the UK are being diagnosed with swine flu and the fear is that the health service might collapse if healthcare staff fall ill and take time off work as a result of dealing with infected patients or caring for sick children.

John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said that the NHS would come under further pressure as a result of the European Working Time Directive, which reduces a hospital doctor's working week from the permitted 56 hours currently in force to 48 hours at a time when the service potentially faces the biggest crisis in a generation.

Dr Black wanted reassurances that the regulations would be suspended in the event of a continuing increase in the rate at which people are falling seriously ill. "It could fizzle out or we could have a one, two or three-stage serious pandemic," he said yesterday.

"If that happens everybody of course will work whatever hours are necessary to keep the patients alive in a crisis. I trust that if that happens the Government will not fudge it and they will actually say that the European Working Time Directive leaves no slack at all in the system and if there is a major crisis it should be suspended."

The doctors' pressure group Remedy UK also called on the Government to bypass the EU regulation if the situation worsened, but Andy Thornley, chairman of the British Medical Association's junior doctors committee, said that that would be premature.

Dr Thornley said: "The Government needs to be much clearer in communicating how it plans to deal with these additional pressures as it is unacceptable that so little information is trickling down to junior doctors.

"It is also important that the NHS works hard to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and inappropriate work so that junior doctors can do what they do best – treat their patients."

The Department of Health said that doctors, nurses and healthcare staff could work longer hours if and when they needed to, and that during national emergencies there were special provisions to allow extended working if it became necessary.

It emerged yesterday that tourist authorities are concerned about a decline in foreign holidaymakers visiting the UK as a result of the swine flu outbreak. Shadow Tourism minister, Tobias Ellwood, said he would hold an urgent meeting to discuss the impact of swine flu with representatives from Visit Britain, Visit England, Visit London, The Tourism Alliance, the British Hospitality Association, the travel industry and the health service. "It is essential to develop a strategy to ensure both domestic and overseas visitors recognise that Britain remains a safe place to visit and we are very much open for business," Mr Ellwood said.

The World Health Organisation has said that there should be no restrictions on foreign travel for healthy people and no screening at airports, but has advised people who are ill to delay any non-urgent travel plans until they get better.

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