Junior doctors were due to walk out of all but emergency care between 8am and 8pm on 1 December
Junior doctors were due to walk out of all but emergency care between 8am and 8pm on 1 December

Junior doctors strike called off to grant more time for talks

Current contract offer will remain as basis for a futher four weeks of negotiations

Charlie Cooper
Whitehall Correspondent
Monday 30 November 2015 20:15
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An eleventh hour agreement has been struck to avert planned strikes by junior doctors, which had been due to hit NHS services on 1 December and throughout the Christmas period.

After five days of talks between the Government and doctors union the British Medical Association (BMA), conciliation service Acas confirmed that a deal had been reached which will see all strike action planned for December suspended.

The Government, meanwhile, has temporarily dropped its threat to impose a new contract on junior doctors next year.

Junior doctors were due to walk out of all but emergency care between 8am and 8pm on 1 December – the first of three planned days of action over the Government’s new contract offer, including two full walkouts later this month.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told MPs that the planned strike would have meant up to 20,000 patients seeing “vital operations” cancelled.

The deal was struck between the BMA, the Department of Health and the arms-length body NHS Employers. It will allow for four weeks of further negotiations before the BMA can commence any further industrial action.

However, the current contract offer, made in November, which comes with no extra investment in pay, will remain the basis for further talks.

After five days of talks, a deal had been reached which will see all strike action planned for December suspended

An Acas spokesperson said: "Following five days of productive talks under the auspices of Acas, the BMA, NHS Employers and the Department of Health have reached an agreement, which is attached. Acas is pleased that the talks have been held in a constructive manner and cooperative spirit between the parties, that will allow an improvement in industrial relations."

Announcing that a potential agreement had been made, Mr Hunt said the Government had only ever wanted a negotiated solution, but was challenged by Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Heidi Alexander, over his delay in accepting Acas intervention in talks last week.

Ms Alexander proposed Acas involvement a week and half ago, receiving the backing of the BMA. However, the Government waited until last week to agree to mediated talks.

“Given that a number of operations have already been cancelled, is it not the case that if the Health Secretary had agreed to this proposal when it was first put to him, he could have avoided, or at least mitigated, any disruption to patients tomorrow?” Ms Alexander.

Mr Hunt had chaired three contingency planning meetings with NHS leaders.

“The government’s first responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. This particularly applies to those needing care in our hospitals so we are making every effort to minimise any harm or risks caused by the strike,” he said.

The new contract, which is aimed at improving weekend cover in hospitals, is not backed up by any extra investment in the NHS, leading to fears it will spread the current workforce too thin, leading to overwork and burnout.

It will also remove financial penalties for hospitals that overwork junior doctors, which the BMA say have been the only effective safeguards against them working unsafe hours.

It will cut out-of-hours pay for junior doctors working evenings and Saturdays, in exchange for a 11 per cent uplift in basic pay. While a pledge has been made to protect take-home pay up till 2019, many fear the long-term impact will be junior doctors working longer hours, for less money.

Mr Hunt told MPs that the plans, combined with reforms to consultants’ contracts, would help juniors by providing better support from senior doctors, adding that the new contract would still see doctors receive “more generous rates for weekend work than those offered to police officers, fire officers and pilots.”

“Our plans are deliberately intended to be good for doctors,” he said.

Jeremy Hunt said the Government had only ever wanted a negotiated solution (Getty)

Ms Alexander said that Labour would support the Government in any measures aimed at eradicating higher mortality rates among those admitted to hospital during the weekend.

She said junior doctors now saw themselves as the “first line of defence in a fight for the future of the NHS”.

The Government last week announced it would inject an extra £3.8bn into the NHS budget next year – the lion’s share of a promised £8bn funding increase promised by 2020. However, the health service in England is still expected to cut £22bn from its annual spending by the same year, and funding for public health services provided by councils is being cut by four per cent a year for the next five years.

In a statement on social media, the BMA’s junior doctor chair Dr Johann Malawana said the BMA now had the assurances required for “meaningful negotiation”, but did not rule out returning to industrial action.

“Given the mandate, all sides have committed to entering prompt negotiations to prove that the assurances are meaningful. If those negotiations do not turn out to be as stated, there is a reversal of positions, then we will activate our mandate. The temporary nature of this ensures that we have to work hard to build trust and ensure that these are meaningful contract negotiations.

"If we manage to achieve a safe contract without [industrial action], that is truly an achievement and shows that by standing together we have made an impact. Our profession is stronger because we have all stood together.”

Outstanding issues: Lack of trust

Pay

The current offer includes a significant cut to out-of-hours pay, compensated for by an 11 per cent increase in basic pay. The BMA has demanded “proper recognition” of the unsocial hours doctors work.

Hours

The Government says its contract offer reduces the maximum hours a junior doctor can work from 91 hours in any one week to 72 hours. But the BMA says financial penalties for hospitals are being scrapped.

Parental leave

The new contract will see automatic pay increases replaced with pay increases based on experience, which the BMA says will put doctors who take parental leave at a major disadvantage.

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