Junior doctors shelve strike plans to allow further talks
Strike action by thousands of junior doctors has been suspended so talks can continue, the Government and the British Medical Association (BMA) have announced.
All three strikes planned by the BMA - including a walkout tomorrow - have been suspended in order to return negotiations.
In return, the Government has agreed to suspend its threat to impose a new contract on doctors.
If the fresh round of talks break down, the BMA still has the right to hold its strikes before a deadline of January 13.
A spokesman for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), which has been hosting the talks, 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.
"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."
Four days of talks between the BMA, Government officials and NHS Employers - hosted by Acas - have resulted in the new tentative settlement.
A statement from all parties, released through Acas, said: "W e intend to reach a collaborative agreement, working in partnership to produce a new contract for junior doctors, recognising their central role in patient care and the future of the NHS.
"All parties are committed to reaching an agreement that improves safety for patients and doctors and therefore NHS Employers have agreed to extend the time frame for the BMA to commence any industrial action by four weeks to January 13, 2016 at 1700, to allow negotiations to progress.
"Within that timetable, the BMA agrees to temporarily suspend its proposed strike action and the Department of Health agrees similarly to temporarily suspend implementation of a contract without agreement.
"All parties acknowledge that they share responsibility for the safety of patients and junior doctors, which must be paramount."
In a memorandum of understanding, the groups agreed there was a need to "improve access to seven day services" in the NHS.
"The parties recognise that junior doctors currently make a significant contribution across seven days, that urgent and emergency care is the priority for such services and that any new contract would support these aims," it said.
Earlier, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told MPs in the Commons that the Government would still move to impose the contract on doctors if negotiations did not prove fruitful.
Doctors were poised to take action on three days, providing emergency care only for 24 hours from 8am on Tuesday followed by full walkouts from 8am to 5pm on December 8 and 16.
The action would cause mass disruption to the NHS, with hospitals forced to cancel outpatient clinics and non-urgent operations.
NHS England estimates suggest that over 4,000 operations and procedures have already been scrapped for Tuesday.
The basis for fresh negotiations is the Government's offer from early November, including an 11% rise in basic pay for junior doctors.
This is offset by plans to cut the number of hours on a weekend that junior doctors can claim extra pay for "unsocial" hours.
Currently, 7pm to 7am Monday to Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday attract a premium rate of pay.
Under the new plans, a higher rate would run from 10pm to 7am Monday to Friday, and from 7pm on Saturday evenings - a concession on the previous 10pm.
Mr Hunt has argued that, under the new deal, just 1% of doctors would lose pay and those would be limited to doctors working too many hours already.
The BMA has said the increase in basic pay is misleading due to the changes to pay for unsocial hours. It also has other concerns over flexible pay plans for some specialities.
Mr Hunt told MPs that NHS England had estimated that - across all three days of planned action - up to 20,000 patients would have operations cancelled, including around 1,500 cataracts operations, 900 skin lesion removals, 630 hip and knee operations, 400 spine operations, 250 gall bladder removals and nearly 300 tonsil and grommets operations.
Dr Barbara Hakin, national director of commissioning operations at NHS England, said: "We're very pleased that tomorrow's action has been suspended and negotiations are continuing.
"This is in the best interests of patients although we can only apologise for the disruption caused to anyone who has already had their operations cancelled for tomorrow."
Health minister Lord Prior of Brampton told the Lords that the agreement was "by any standards very good news".
He said sorting out the contractual dispute with junior doctors was "fundamental to restoring morale".
For the Opposition, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath also welcomed the outcome of the talks, warning that the last few months had been "very bruising" for junior doctors and it was vitally important the "brain drain" to Australia and New Zealand was turned around.
Lord Hunt said he hoped the progress would mark a "change in tone and a change in approach" by the Government.
For the Liberal Democrats, Baroness Walmsley urged ministers to apologise to the 4,000 patients whose treatments on Tuesday will have been delayed by "going right up to the wire like this and the Government being so reluctant to go to Acas for some negotiation".
Professor John Schofield, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA), said: "The HCSA has argued all along that the imposition of changes was not an option - tonight it appears that this message has got through.
"While hospital consultants stood - and stand - ready to ensure the safety and continuity of excellent patient care during any industrial action by juniors, it is to the benefit of all parties that space is now created for a sustained and serious attempt to bridge the gap between the Government's aspirations and the fears of doctors in training.
"Hospital consultants remain concerned that without concerted efforts to address the grievances at the heart of this dispute, there could be serious long-term consequences for the retention and recruitment of the next generation of senior doctors.
"We hope now that discussions can continue in a climate where due prominence is given to the litmus tests of patient and staff safety, fairness and work-life balance for those hard-working frontline hospital staff who form the backbone of current and future NHS services."
Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said: "Nobody wanted to see industrial action, not least the junior doctors, so it will be a huge relief to many that common sense has finally prevailed.
"If Jeremy Hunt had agreed to independent talks when it was first put to him he could have avoided or at least mitigated any disruption to patients tomorrow.
"Unfortunately, it will now be too late to rearrange the operations and appointments that have been cancelled and those patients deserve an apology from Jeremy Hunt."