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Calls for junior doctors to call off further five-day strikes

The health secretary and senior NHS officials have urged junior doctors to call off planned five-day strikes later this year and to resolve the remaining differences they have through “co-operation and dialogue”.

The British Medical Association (BMA) announced it is planning five-day strikes every month until the end of the year after its members voted against a proposed new contract, intended to support the government’s plans for a seven-day NHS.

Yesterday it called off the first strike, due to start on 12 September, saying it was responding to NHS England’s concerns that hospitals wouldn’t have enough time to prepare.

In a statement yesterday, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he welcomed the news, but added: “We must not let it obscure the fact that the remaining planned industrial action is unprecedented in length and severity and will be damaging to patients, some of whose operations will have already been cancelled.”

He added that there may remain “honest differences of opinion on seven-day care, but the way to resolve them is through co-operation and dialogue, not confrontation and strikes which harm patients”.

“To those who say these changes are demoralising the NHS workforce, I simply say that nothing is more demoralising or more polarising than a damaging strike,” said Hunt. “It is not too late to turn decisively away from the path of confrontation and to put patients first, and I urge everyone to consider how their own individual actions in the coming months will impact on people who desperately need the services of our NHS.”

Shadow health secretary Diane Abbott called on the government to agree with junior doctors’ demand that they suspend imposing the contract, saying: “The public are looking for the secretary of state to try and meet the junior doctors: stop vilifying them, stop pretending they are the ‘enemy within’, and meet their reasonable demands.”

Dr Philippa Whitford, SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, also urged Hunt to resume negotiations with junior doctors. She asked how he intended to find the extra doctors to deliver seven-day services when the NHS is already struggling to fill posts.

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the health committee, said that she thought the BMA should conduct another ballot of its members before carrying out the five-day strikes.

In a parallel debate in the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Hunt of King’s Heath said: “There is a clear risk that the morale of a whole generation of doctors is being destroyed as we speak. When that is put alongside the implications of Brexit and the potential loss of experienced staff through the decision by many junior doctors to leave the profession or to go abroad, this is a worrying position.”

Lord Prior of Brampton, the parliamentary under-secretary to the Department of Health, said the government had made 103 concessions to junior doctors since negotiations over the contract began three years ago.

“The government are bending over backwards to meet the BMA, but there comes a point where we just have to bite the bullet and go ahead with the contract that has been agreed, and that is the place we are in now,” he said.

NHS leaders call for resolution

NHS Providers and NHS Confederation also said they welcomed the news of the strike’s cancellation and called for a resolution to the dispute.

Stephen Dalton, chief executive of NHS Confederation, said:  “We are really pleased with this development. While this is certainly welcome, many appointments and operations have already been cancelled in preparation for the first of the four proposed walkouts. We urge all parties to continue talking to find a resolution before further industrial action takes place.”

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “We continue to urge the BMA to call off the remaining strikes to prevent further distress, delay and pain to patients.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, added that he thought the planned industrial action in October, November and December is an “excessive response” to any outstanding concerns.

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, urged the BMA and Department of Health to meet urgently and participate in meaningful and sincere negotiations in order to resolve this impasse. 

“It is vital that there is a coherent plan with a satisfactory resolution for all parties, and the only way this can be achieved is if the two parties show willingness to resume discussion,” she said. “At the heart of this, we know that junior doctors are concerned about patient safety, but in becoming doctors they also pledged to look after patients and have their best interests at heart. For this reason, it is right that the BMA called off strike action next week because it seriously risks patient safety. Notwithstanding, the Department of Health must remember that striking is not in the interest of patients and should show willingness to avoid further strikes by opening up avenues for discussion.”

(Image c. Neil Hall from PA Wire)

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