Junior doctors to get 48-hour working 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 enjoyed by most workers to many still excluded, including junior doctors and transport workers. It would cut working hours for junior doctors to 54 a week as soon as it is adopted, then give the Government seven years to reduce them to a maximum of 48 hours.

The directive will define working time as the hours spent on the premises and at the disposal of the hospital authorities. Periods 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.

Last night 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. Obviously in practical terms they will have great problems staffing the service."

The directive will also apply to 3.5 million transport workers.