Lib Dem Conference: Junior doctors get party backing for cut in hours

Click to follow
A LIBERAL Democrat MP described his time as a junior doctor as the "most stressful and traumatic" part of his life yesterday, as the party overwhelmingly backed proposals to improve medics working hours.

Dr Evan Harris told delegates how his marriage collapsed as a result of stress and colleagues committed suicide or had mental breakdowns because of the long hours.

Dr Harris made his emotional speech at the party's conference as talks over pay between junior doctors and the Government were on a knife- edge. On Friday, junior doctors are expected to approve a ballot on industrial action unless Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, improves his offer within the next three days.

The Government is proposing to change the way that junior doctors are paid for overtime. But ministers are refusing to meet junior doctors' demands to double the pounds 4 per hour they are paid in overtime to match the pounds 8 per hour for their normal working hours.

Mr Dobson has argued that the working situation of junior doctors would improve through the Government's drive to recruit more medical students. But Dr Harris stressed that such measures would take too long to tackle the situation.

He said there was a need for more consultant posts so that junior doctors could be given more opportunities.

While the new deal for better Working Hours, which was passed in 1991, aimed to reduce junior doctors' working hours to 56, in reality they were often forced to cover medical emergencies in their overtime which could be treated by experienced senior nurses, he said. "The situation is a complete disgrace. My time as a junior doctor was the most stressful and traumatic of my whole life," he said. Dr Harris added that the cost to create extra consultant posts in a bid to solve the crisis would be minimal in comparison to the present expenditure of recruiting more junior doctors.

Barbara Hewitt-Silk, from Thanet South, warned that the situation was "damaging the relationships with patients. Many junior doctors spent their entire life working, sleeping and eating. They are suffering from extreme loneliness."

Simon Hughes, the party's health spokesman said the shortage of NHS staff had left them "overworked and demoralised." "The over-stretched health service staff are far more likely to make the mistakes which lead to litigation and huge sums for damages which the health service, even more tragically, has to pay for," he said.

Mr Hughes has already made clear that health will be one of the key areas where the Liberal Democrats will attack the Government in the run-up to the next general election. The party is also hostile to extending co- operation with Labour to such areas.

If the Government fails to find a compromise with junior doctors, the issue looks set to overshadow the next week's Labour party Conference in Bournemouth. The Tories, led by Dr Liam Fox, the party's spokesman on health, and a former GP, are also likely to seize on the failure to solve the crisis and will use it in their attack of Labour's handling of the NHS.