The move, an apparent reversal of the 20-year policy to cut doctors' hours, was condemned by the British Medical Association, while the European Commission said the proposal was unacceptable. "We are not trading in Turkish carpets here. We are talking about the health and safety of junior doctors and their patients," a Commission spokesman said.
Embarrassed officials at the Department of Health moved swiftly to contain the dispute as Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, insisted in the Commons that the Government was committed to bringing down junior doctors' hours. In sharp exchanges with the shadow Health Secretary, Ann Widdecombe, Mr Dobson said ministers were not proposing "that any junior doctor should work longer hours in this country than they are working now".
Ms Widdecombe challenged him to say whether the Commission was issuing misleading information "or are you, having a rather incredible fit of imagination?" But Mr Dobson insisted the aim was to have a system that protected the interests of junior doctors and the NHS "and they are not trapped by any rigidities imposed on us from Brussels".
A Department of Health spokesman said the move had been forced on the Government to ensure NHS trusts did not fall foul of European law under the new working hours directive, which sets legal limits to the length of the working week.
Since 1991 junior doctors in the UK have been set a target limit of 56 hours a week under the new deal agreed with the BMA. However, manpower shortages mean that not all trusts have been able to honour the deal and one in six juniors still works more than 56 hours.
The Health Department spokesman said: "What we don't want to do is go for too tight a time frame for implementation [of the working hours directive] with too tight a margin so that we have trusts breaking the European law."
The British and Irish proposal is that 65 hours should be the limit for the next seven years followed by 60 hours for a further seven years - an indication of how difficult ministers consider reducing doctors' hours further will be.
The plan has already provoked trouble in Brussels. Under the EU proposals, the Government would be given a seven-year transitional period in which doctors would not be allowed to work more than 54 hours a week. At the end of that transition, which would start when the measure was adopted - probably this autumn - the 48-hour week would apply.
Although the British and Irish plan is unlikely to get sufficient support, Germany, which holds the presidency of the EU, has put forward a set of compromise proposals with better prospects. Under these, the maximum hours would be reduced gradually with a 60-hour ceiling for two years, 56 hours for the next two years, and 52 hours for the following four years.Reuse content