The agreement by European Union social affairs ministers means Britain's doctors will not enjoy the protection of a maximum 48 hour week until at least 2012, twice as long as originally envisaged, after a successful lobbying operation by British ministers.
European commissioners were furious at the outcome. Padraig Flynn, the commissioner for social affairs, said he was "very, very disappointed" at the result, which was neither "politically feasible nor morally acceptable". He added: "It is unacceptable that patients can continue to be treated by doctors who are exhausted, and in consequence may pose a danger to people's health. We cannot compromise on the health and safety of doctors and their patients for a further - unacceptable - period of time."
The British Medical Association said it would write to every candidate in the European elections to get the proposal overturned. Trevor Pickersgill, deputy chairman of the BMA's Junior Doctors' Committee, said: "Three years after the Government was meant to have fully implemented the New Deal to limit junior doctors' working hours, the Government has failed to deliver and now they are failing us further because we won't see any change for 10 years."
As part of the New Deal on working hours agreed in 1991, junior doctors in the UK are not supposed to work more than 56 hours a week. But that limit is not legally binding and a survey last year found that, because of staff shortages, one in six junior doctors were working more than 56 hours.
Under the agreement reached in Brussels, no legal maximum week will be set for four years. Thereafter, the maximum average working time per week will be 60 hours for three years, 56 hours for the following three years, and 52 hours for the final three year transition period. The regulations cover only hours worked and do not include time spent on call at hospitals.
Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, said the 13 year time scale was "realistic" for the introduction of the New Deal and pledged that "not a single junior doctor will be asked to work longer hours."
Ministers feared that a 48 hour limit imposed too soon would mean some NHS trusts might find themselves breaking the law. They argued in Brussels that Britain needed another 6,000 doctors and they would take many years to train.
Mr Flynn said: "It is not possible to defend the transitional period which is now proposed. Poor local organisation of shift work and the attitude of senior doctors and management can be one of the prime causes of protracted periods of continuous duty. There is no excuse for not changing these factors now. It does not take 13 years to improve organisation in European hospitals."
The fate of the junior doctors' working week now lies with the European Parliament which must approve the deal and could seek to cut the transition period. However that would complicate the passage of the legislation, something which might delay implementation.Reuse content