Junior doctors peace talks extended after 'real progress'
Talks aimed at resolving a dispute over a new contract for junior doctors will continue into next week.
The arbitration service Acas announced that f ive days of "intensive" talks had been held between the British Medical Association (BMA), Government officials and NHS employers and will resume on Monday for up to three more days.
Chairman of Acas, Sir Brendan Barber, said: " Both parties have committed themselves over the whole of this week to highly intensive negotiations in an effort to resolve this long running dispute.
"The talks have been conducted in a constructive and positive atmosphere. In my judgment some real progress has been made to address outstanding issues.
"I reached the view, however, in the last 24 hours that a limited amount of additional time would be needed to give the process a chance of reaching a successful conclusion.
"I proposed to the Secretary of State and to the BMA that the talks should be continued up until next Wednesday, and to allow this to happen, that each side should renew the commitments they made for this process to start.
"These were that the Government would suspend any action towards the implementation of the proposed new contract and that the BMA would suspend any decision on further industrial action. I am grateful that both parties have agreed to this proposal."
Sir Brendan said the further talks represented a "strictly time-limited extension" and were a "final opportunity to find an agreement".
He added: "To give this the best possible chance of succeeding I have urged both parties to respect the confidentiality of the negotiations and to make no public comments on the talks and the issues under review and no hostile or negative comments about the other parties involved.
"I am grateful again that both parties have given that commitment.
"I understand that there will be considerable media interest in this issue but I hope that you will understand why my priority, and that of the parties, must be to maintain the confidentiality that has given this process a chance of finding a breakthrough."
The views of NHS Employers and the Government are being represented by Sir David Dalton, who was involved in the original talks and heads up Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, while the BMA is being represented by D r Johann Malawana.
There are hopes on both sides that a final agreement can be reached that deals with the crucial issue of Saturday pay.
The BMA has said any deal would need to be put before junior doctors in a ballot, though that is expected to take several weeks.
The issue is sure to be debated at this weekend's junior doctors' committee conference, held by the BMA in central London.
Junior doctors stopped providing emergency care for the first time in NHS history during their most recent walkout.
More than 125,000 appointments and operations were cancelled and will need to be rearranged, on top of almost 25,000 procedures cancelled during previous action.
Stephen Dalton, acting chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "We welcome the decision by the Government and the BMA to continue talking in a 'safe space'.
"Our members are supportive of this additional time and the efforts being made with Acas to try and find a swift resolution to this dispute for the benefit of patients and staff."
Professor Jane Dacre, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: " As we have said many times before, the RCP believes that negotiations are the best way to see this dispute resolved, therefore it is welcome that talks are continuing.
"A solution is needed, both for the wider NHS and the patients we care for every day."
If the talks fail, the Government has indicated it will push ahead with the imposition of the contract.
Hospitals are due to start sending out contracts to doctors from the end of this month although it could take around a year for most junior doctors to move on to them.
The Government wants a new contract for doctors working up to consultant level to replace one it says is outdated.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to cut the number of hours over a weekend for which junior doctors can claim extra pay, while offsetting this with a hike in basic pay.
This has proved a major sticking point in the row with the BMA - whether Saturdays should attract extra "unsocial" payments.
Currently, 7pm to 7am Monday to Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday attract a premium rate of pay for junior doctors.
The imposed contract has an increase in basic salary of 13.5% but 7am to 5pm on Saturdays would be regarded as a normal working day. There will still be premium rates for Saturday evenings and all of Sunday.
The BMA has so far rejected these plans.