Junior doctors strike: Jeremy Hunt rejects Acas talks plan
The Health Secretary has urged doctors to call off their "damaging strike" as he ruled out bringing in mediators until union leaders agree to fresh talks.
Jeremy Hunt said "the right thing to do" is to stop strikes by thousands of junior doctors in England and for the British Medical Association (BMA) to return to the negotiating table.
The BMA earlier said it wants to avoid industrial action despite its members voting overwhelmingly in favour of strikes.
It said it had contacted the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) for mediation with Mr Hunt and NHS employers.
But Mr Hunt has refused to agree to talks through Acas unless the BMA enters direct negotiations first.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Hunt said : "We don't rule that (Acas) out at some stage, but this process has already had independent mediation right from the start.
"We went to the Independent Pay Review Body, they came up with their proposals, we accepted their proposals and they are the basis of what we are proposing should change."
He said the Government will be " very, very happy to look at that possibility at a later stage" of bringing in mediators.
When asked why not now, he said: "We have some independent proposals, you can't keep going back to more and more independent processes.
"The pay review body's proposals are completely independent.. The right thing now is to discuss those proposals and do the right thing for patients."
He said the strike is the result of a "very regrettable campaign of misinformation by the BMA over the summer that has tried to scare doctors about these proposals, suggesting they are going to have a pay cut".
He said a promised rise in basic pay is a "very fair deal for doctors".
Urging the BMA to call off its "damaging strike", he said: "I don't rule out the involvement of third parties in the future but for now the right thing to do is to call off the strike."
But a BMA spokesman said only talks through Acas would work.
He said: "It is clear that trust has broken down between junior doctors and the Government, which is why we are offering conciliatory talks via Acas."
He said if Mr Hunt has refused the offer, "all he is doing is entrenching himself even further".
A total of 98% of junior doctors voted in favour of strikes, with 2% against and 11 spoilt ballot papers.
More than 37,000 doctors were balloted by the BMA, and 76% took part in the vote.
The BMA spokesman added: "The fact that today's ballot result is near-unanimous should be a wake-up call for the Government.
"Instead of continuing to ignore the views of tens of thousands of junior doctors who, in the H ealth Secretary's own words are the backbone of the NHS, he should, if he really wants to avoid industrial action, accept the BMA's offer of conciliatory talks."
Mr Hunt earlier said the NHS will do all it can to keep patients safe if strikes go ahead, but he insisted there is a need to bring in seven-day services.
He said: "This is very, very disappointing news.
"We want to be able to promise NHS patients they will get the same high-quality care every day of the week. Study after study has shown that our mortality rates at weekends are too high."
On the strikes, he added: "We will have to put in place contingency plans to make sure patients are safe over a very, very busy period for the NHS."
Doctors will take action over three days, providing emergency care only for 24 hours from 8am on December 1, followed by full walkouts from 8am to 5pm on December 8 and 16.
There is expected to be mass disruption to the NHS, with hospitals forced to cancel outpatient clinics and non-urgent operations.
Mr Hunt tried to avert strikes with a fresh deal, including an 11% rise in basic pay.
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.