Jeremy Hunt: BMA's actions in contract row made doctors feel devalued
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has acknowledged the low morale and anger among junior doctors but blamed the British Medical Association (BMA) for exacerbating the bitter dispute over new contracts.
With thousands of junior doctors in England set to go on strike again on Wednesday, Mr Hunt accused the union of behaving in a "totally irresponsible way" and "spreading misinformation" about the proposed deal.
He acknowledged that work was needed to improve morale but claimed the BMA's actions over the contract dispute had made medics feel "devalued".
The Government has threatened to impose a new contract aimed at delivering the Tory commitment to a seven-day NHS if an agreement cannot be reached with the BMA.
Mr Hunt told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "What we will end up with is a contract that is better for patients but also better for doctors."
But c onfronted with quotes from junior doctors raising issues about low morale and potentially unsafe working conditions, Mr Hunt acknowledged there was anger within the workforce.
"Quite outside the contract, we need to do a number of things to improve the morale of junior doctors. I think there is a lot we can do in respect of the training.
"But what I would say is one of the reasons for that anger - and there is anger there - is because they were told by the BMA that their pay was going to be cut. It isn't.
"They were told that they were going to be asked to work longer hours. They aren't, we are actually bringing down the hours they work.
"And if you are told by your union that the Health Secretary wants to do these awful things, of course you feel devalued.
"Now the way to restore morale in the profession is to sit around the table, discuss what is the right thing to do for doctors and for patients and also to look at the bigger picture - which is record resources going in to the NHS, the sixth biggest increase in funding in one year in the history of nearly 70 years of the NHS, more doctors and nurses than ever, a total commitment by the Government to making the NHS the highest quality, safest healthcare anywhere in the world.
"There are always battles along the way but what history will ask is did the Health Secretary, did the Government that has committed in its manifesto to seven-day services, did they do the right things for patients to make care safer, better? If they did, in the end doctors too will say 'there was a big argument over it, but it was the right thing for the NHS'."
Mr Hunt said that his choice of language during the dispute had been "extremely careful" but claimed his words were often "distorted" by the BMA " which is one of the cleverest trade unions in the book because they know that in any argument between doctors and politicians , the public are going to side with doctors ".
He insisted that he was still prepared to negotiate over the deal: " The single issue that we are still at loggerheads on is this question of unsocial hours on Saturdays, I have said my door is open, I'm happy to do that.
"The BMA are saying they don't want to talk about that. What I am saying is rather than cancelling more operations, come and talk."
Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander wrote to Mr Hunt urging him to make an "explicit and significant public commitment to further concessions" over Saturday hours.
"If you are not willing to do this, a new contract should not be imposed," she said. "Such a decision on your part could lead to protracted industrial action and widespread anger among other NHS staff at a time when morale is already at rock bottom."
Dr Johann Malawana, BMA junior doctor committee chairman, said: "The BMA has been clear throughout this process that we want to reach a negotiated agreement - no doctor wants to take industrial action, and our door has always been open to talks.
"But the Government is putting politics before reason, and their continued threat to impose a contract that junior doctors have roundly rejected leaves us with no option.
"Junior doctors already work around the clock, seven days a week and they do so under their existing contract. If the Government want more seven-day services then, quite simply, they need more doctors, nurses and diagnostic staff, and the extra investment needed to deliver it.
"Rather than addressing these issues, Jeremy Hunt is instead ploughing ahead with proposals that are unfair and could see many junior doctors voting with their feet.
"We already have a situation where unprecedented numbers of junior doctors are considering their options and even leaving the NHS, how can the Government deliver more seven-day services if there are even greater staff shortages in the NHS? The Health Secretary is also still refusing to acknowledge that he has scared patients and the public, and angered NHS staff by misrepresenting statistics.
"This action is wholly avoidable but Jeremy Hunt's shambolic mishandling of this situation means he risks alienating a generation of junior doctors and undermining the delivery of future patient care, which is why 98% of those junior doctors who voted, supported taking industrial action."
Ms Alexander warned junior doctors could leave the UK and go to countries such as Australia and Canada.
She told Sky News's Murnaghan programme: "The Labour Party has always been clear that the best way to sort this problem out is to have a negotiated solution to it."
The shadow health secretary criticised Mr Hunt's handling of the new contract negotiations, saying: "I think the way that Jeremy Hunt has handled these negotiations has been an utter shambles to be honest."
She went on: "I can understand the anger and frustration of the junior doctors in this whole dispute and I think they feel as if they have got no other option about getting their point across. I just think that the way the health secretary has behaved in all of this, it's been a sort of game of brinkmanship and that is no way to conduct negotiations or to run the NHS.
"He has to stop behaving like a recruiting sergeant for Australian hospitals and start behaving like the secretary of state for our NHS."
Ms Alexander touched upon the issue of GP recruitment and people's problems in accessing GP appointments.
She said she was "really concerned" about the effect of the dispute on staff morale.
She added: "If you just continue to do what this Government do which is cut social care and the budgets that sit within local authorities to care for the elderly, you simply end up asking the NHS to pick up the pieces."