Doctors to get 48-hour week

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PLANS TO cut the hours of junior hospital doctors, and phase in a 48-hour working week, will be announced by the European Commission today.

The initiative could herald the resolution of one of the longest-running and most contentious staffing issues in the National Health Service.

The measure will be proposed in a new directive extending the 48-hour week to many workers still excluded, including junior doctors and transport workers. It would cut working hours for junior doctors to 54 hours a week as soon as it is adopted, then give the Government seven years to reduce them to 48 hours.

The directive will define working time as the hours spent on the premises and at the disposal of the hospital authorities. Time spent asleep but on call will not be counted.

The punishing regime to which many junior doctors are subjected has raised fears that exhaustion could endanger patients' safety. The Department of Health has already promised to reduce junior doctors' hours to 56, although it estimates that 10-15 per cent of the country's 34,000 doctors work longer.

The Government does not have a veto because the issue will be decided by ministers under qualified majority voting.

A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association said: "It will take a huge effort to make it work by doctors, patients and the health service." Andrew Hobart, chairman of the BMA's junior doctors' committee, said there would need to be a 17 per cent increase in staff - about 6,000 more doctors.

The directive will also apply to 3.5 million transport workers. It provoked fierce opposition from the Road Haulage Association, which described the move as a "double-whammy" against the industry.