Junior doctors strike: Talks with BMA lasted less than an hour, says Jeremy Hunt
Talks between the Government and the British Medical Association (BMA) lasted less than an hour yesterday before doctors announced they would strike, the Health Secretary has said.
Jeremy Hunt said the Government thought it was " making very good progress" in talks and he was disappointed the BMA had called strikes, but added that "the door is open".
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There were 16 areas the BMA wanted to talk about.
"On Christmas Eve, they sent a message to their members saying there were two outstanding ones.
"Yesterday we met and we thought we had a solution to one of them and we were prepared to negotiate on the final one but the talks lasted less than an hour and they walked out and started the strikes going."
Mr Hunt said he would "like to know" from the BMA's chairman, Dr Mark Porter, what the other areas of contention were.
"The thing is though, when you've got something where you don't think you're making good progress you all should sit down and talk about it," he said.
"The pay thing is important, I did think we'd make some progress there.
"We want to bring down weekend pay rates and make up for it with an increase in basic pay of around 11% and we've offered protection for 99% of doctors, so 99% will either see their pay protected or go up."
Mr Hunt said that "no government" wanted to cut doctors' pay but changes must be made to increase weekend staffing levels.
"Pay is one of the issues and another is safety. It's in no one's interest to have doctors who are too tired.
"We have 200 avoidable deaths every week in the NHS and doctors are as committed as I am to bringing that down in the wake of Mid Staffs.
"In this new contract, we're saying doctors can't work more than four nights in a row, which is very important in terms of sleep patterns."
Mr Hunt told BBC Breakfast the planned walkouts "could be very damaging for patients".
But he said: "The current contract means we have three times less medical cover on weekends because hospitals can't afford to roster enough people on Saturdays and Sundays. And that is what we want to change."
He added: "We have a situation where every weekend in the NHS we have lapses in care, that we are not able to promise NHS patients the same high-quality care every day of the week. And you can't choose which day of the week you get ill on."
Dr Porter said it "remains possible" that action could be called off but insisted the Government would have to go "further" than it has so far.
He told the Today programme: "The Government is, understandably, putting round the fact that agreement is almost there.
"It's almost there in their mind but not in the minds of junior doctors."
He added: "An 11% pay increase doesn't compensate when you take away a 31% average payment for working the unsocial hours. Anybody can do the maths on that."
The BMA announced on Monday that there will be three spells of strike action, with junior doctors providing emergency care only from 8am on Tuesday January 12.
This will be followed by a 48-hour stoppage and the provision of emergency care only from 8am on Tuesday January 26.
On Wednesday February 10, there will be a full withdrawal of labour from 8am to 5pm.
The basis for the current round of 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 for which 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 Government's offer, junior doctors would receive time-and-a-half for any hours worked Monday to Sunday between 10pm and 7am, and time-and-a-third for any hours worked between 7pm and 10pm on Saturdays and 7am and 10pm on Sundays.
Junior doctors would also receive on-call availability allowances, ranging from 2% to 6% of basic pay, as well as payment for work undertaken as a result of being on-call.
The strikes would lead to disruption for thousands of NHS patients. Suspended strike action in November led to the cancellation of thousands of operations, procedures and appointments.
Dr Porter said junior doctors already worked a seven-day service, including nights and weekends.
"I really don't think many listeners will understand what the Government is going on about in trying to imply that there is not a seven-day service for emergencies already," he told the Today programme.
He said the BMA thought it was "really necessary" to invest more resources in seven-day working.
"The Government has simply come along and said they want to reduce the pay of junior doctors who do take part in seven-day services."
Dr Porter said the doctors who did most of the out-of-hours work would "not see" a pay uplift as set out by the Government.
He said the Government's claim that only 1% of doctors would be paid less under the new deal was part of "Government propaganda" and was not a figure junior doctors recognised.
Dr Porter said doctors regretted the disruption to patients caused by strikes.