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Health Secretary stands firm ahead of junior doctors' strike

Published 25/04/2016

Jeremy Hunt wants to meet the British Medical Association for talks
Jeremy Hunt wants to meet the British Medical Association for talks

Jeremy Hunt has appealed to junior doctors not to withdraw emergency cover during their strike but said "no trade union" has the right to veto a Government manifesto commitment.

In a clear sign that he will not back down just hours before an all-out strike by medics across England, the Health Secretary said changes were needed to create safer services at weekends.

Referring to the British Medical Association (BMA), he said " no trade union has the right to veto" a manifesto commitment made by the Government to improve weekend services.

In a statement to MPs, he said the disruption over the next two days was "unprecedented" but the NHS has made "exhaustive efforts" to ensure patient safety.

Mr Hunt added that there were plans in place to provide safe care, particular in maternity, A&E and crisis mental health services.

Mr Hunt said: "No trade union has the right to veto a manifesto promise voted for by the British people.

"We are proud of the NHS as one of our greatest institutions but we must turn that pride into actions and a seven-day service will help us turn the NHS into one of the highest quality healthcare systems in the world."

He added: "I wish to appeal directly to all junior doctors not to withdraw emergency cover, which creates particular risks for A&Es, maternity units and intensive care units."

He said he understood that some doctors may disagree with the Government over the new contract but said it offered doctors more premium pay than "police officers, fire fighters and nearly every other worker in the public and private sectors".

Hospitals across England are finalising plans for dealing with the first all-out strike by junior doctors in the history of the NHS. It will run from 8am to 5pm on Tuesday and Wednesday.

More than 125,000 appointments and operations have been cancelled and will need to be rearranged, according to figures from NHS England.

The BMA has defended the walkout, repeating its stance that it will call off the strike if Mr Hunt agrees to lift his threat to impose the contract.

Mr Hunt has rejected this offer but wrote to the head of the BMA, Dr Mark Porter, over the weekend calling for an urgent meeting on Monday to discuss some parts of the deal.

Earlier on Monday, more than a dozen presidents of royal colleges and faculties urged David Cameron to step in "at the 11th hour" to break the stalemate between junior doctors and the Government.

Their letter said: "You have spoken many times about your commitment to the NHS. In our view, as leaders of the medical profession, the ongoing impasse in the dispute between Government and junior doctors poses a significant threat to our whole healthcare system by demoralising a group of staff on whom the future of the NHS depends.

"At this 11th hour, we call upon you to intervene, bring both parties back to the negotiating table, end this damaging stand-off, and initiate an honest debate about the serious difficulties facing UK health services."

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, also pleaded for an end to the dispute.

She said: "On behalf of the patients of this country, we plead with the Government and the BMA at this late stage to talk and reach an amicable solution."

Dr Porter told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the Government had "distorted" weekend death statistics.

Responding to Mr Hunt's claim that lives are being put at risk by the strike, he said: "The Health Secretary is trying to find some way to throw mud at the junior doctors of this country who have been providing weekend and night emergency cover since the NHS started."

Dr Porter added: "The reality is we have advised our members to take part in contingency planning and the NHS has put in place a magnificent effort of contingency planning to make sure that safe emergency care will be delivered on Tuesday and Wednesday. It will be delivered by consultants and staff and associate specialty doctors.

"If the Government will call off the imposition, we will call off the strikes."

On Saturday, a coalition of MPs including Labour shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander urged Mr Hunt to test the new work contract in a small number of trusts rather than impose it across England without the support of the BMA.

The Health Secretary dismissed the proposal as Labour "opportunism".

A Government source told the BBC that the BMA was trying to bring down the Government, saying it had radicalised a "generation of junior doctors".

If the Government backed down, it would face similar industrial action by other unions, which were watching this dispute "like a hawk".

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Hunt should "back off" in the junior doctors' dispute, adding: "We must stand up and defend the NHS."

He asked if there was a "deeper agenda" to reduce the efficiency of the NHS while promoting private industry.

In his statement, Mr Hunt sought to reassure patients that everything possible is being done to keep them safe during the strikes.

He said: "The NHS is busting a gut to keep the public safe.

"But we should not lose sight of the underlying reason for this dispute, namely this Government's determination to be the first country in the world to offer a proper patient-focused seven-day health service."

Professor Robert Winston told 5 News Mr Hunt was making a "massive mistake".

He said: "There really is a need for a compromise and I think that the doctors would be happy to accept a compromise. These are altruistic people and they don't want to strike, they don't want to withdraw their labour. And obviously the hope is that patients will not be damaged, but even delaying operations is not great.

"I think the Secretary of State really should think again about how he can persuade what is really important in the National Health Service, right across the board, the need for high morale. At the moment the morale in the health service has never been lower and to some extent Jeremy Hunt is responsible for that."

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