Angry junior doctors in pay action vote

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JUNIOR DOCTORS took the first step yesterday towards industrial action over long hours and poor overtime pay.

Anger at the Government's continuing neglect of their plight spilt over at their annual conference in London, which voted unanimously to ballot all 36,000 junior doctors unless talks with the Government resolve the issue. A survey by the British Medical Association, released before the vote, found 95 per cent said they would back some form of action and 20 per cent were prepared to strike.

Andrew Hobart, who chairs the BMA's junior doctors committee, said: "Junior doctors are furious. We are ... at the end of our tether ... We want this issue sorted by the end of this century."

Junior doctors receive half-pay for overtime beyond 40 hours, which can be as little as pounds 4.02 an hour. They say this means hospital trusts have an incentive to make them work longer, because it is cheaper than hiring extra staff.

The juniors are also angry that a 1991 agreement to limit hours to a maximum of 56 a week by 1996 has not been implemented by the Government. One NHS trust in six still employs juniors working beyond 56 hours a week.

Last month the Government had to negotiate a deal with the European Union to exclude junior doctors from the EU's working-time directive, which would have limited their hours to 48 a week, because of its failure to honour the 1991 deal.

What infuriated the juniors was they will not now be subject to the EU's legal limit for 13 years - a measure of how slowly ministers expect to make progress on the hours issue. They were also promised better accommodation and conditions, but these pledges too have not been met, they say.

Fiona Kew, who chaired the conference, said: "This vote for industrial action goes against the grain of the caring profession but junior doctors have been pushed so far that one-fifth are prepared to walk out. I have been expected to carry out a Caesarean section when I have had less than one hour's sleep in the previous 24 hours. It is not surprising junior doctors have had enough."

The result of the ballot, which has to be ratified by the junior doctors committee today, will not be known until September. Mr Hobart said action could start with a refusal to perform clerical tasks or jobs that could be done by nurses or other staff. Doctors could also refuse to do all routine work, providing only emergency cover. He added: "The ultimate would be a complete withdrawal of labour, which we would obviously not want to do, but this issue has dragged on for nine years now."

Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, said ministers and officials had met junior doctors to discuss their working conditions. "We are willing to consider changes to the structure of their pay, if that is what they want," he said.