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Talks on new junior doctors' contract set to restart

Published 06/05/2016

Junior doctors in scrubs and masks sit down in a silent protest outside Bristol Royal Infirmary.
Junior doctors in scrubs and masks sit down in a silent protest outside Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Talks between the Government and the British Medical Association (BMA) over the new junior doctors' contract look set to go ahead.

After months of wrangling and a stand-off which led to strike action and thousands of cancelled operations, both sides have agreed to get back around the negotiating table.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Department of Health was willing to hear what the doctors have to say and would pause the introduction of a new contract for five days of talks.

But he said that negotiations should not proceed unless the department has "written agreement" from the Junior Doctors' Committee (JDC) to negotiate "substantively and in good faith" on the biggest outstanding area in the disagreement - unsocial hours and Saturday pay.

He has also requested that they would "ratify and recommend any negotiated agreement to their members".

During an interview with Sky News, Mr Hunt said: "I hope the BMA will take up the offer to talk constructively and we're seeking assurances by close of the day on Saturday that the BMA will negotiate constructively on the outstanding issues."

The Department of Health confirmed they are still waiting for those assurances from the BMA.

Mr Hunt made his offer in a letter sent to Academy of Medical Royal Colleges chairwoman Professor Dame Sue Bailey, who called on both sides to end the dispute.

Within it he said he expected the discussions to be based on the contractual issues outstanding since February and was eager not to revisit the 90% of issues that were agreed.

Dr Johann Malawana, the BMA's JDC chairman, said they are keen to restart talks with an "open mind".

A BMA spokeswoman added: "Junior doctors have said since the outset that they want to reach a negotiated agreement, and have repeatedly urged the Government to re-enter talks.

"The BMA has agreed to temporarily suspend further industrial action so that talks can resume.

"It is critical to find a way forward on all the outstanding issues - which are more than just pay - and we hope that a new offer is made that can break the impasse."

Last week junior doctors went on an all-out strike for two working days. For the first time in the history of the NHS, junior doctors in England stopped providing emergency care during the walkouts.

More than 125,000 appointments and operations were cancelled and will need to be rearranged.

This figure is on top of almost 25,000 procedures cancelled during previous walkouts.

The Government is intent on introducing a new contract for doctors working up to consultant level to replace one it says is outdated.

Mr 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, due to come into force in August, has an increase in basic salary of 13.5% but 7am to 5pm on Saturdays will be regarded as a normal working day.

There will still be premium rates for Saturday evenings and all of Sunday.

Former health minister Norman Lamb said he hoped the talks would be successful as the dispute is hurting doctors' morale and having a knock-on effect for patients.

The Lib Dem MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Time will tell, particularly over the next few days.

"I just desperately hope that it is serious because this ongoing dispute is incredibly damaging to the NHS, the morale of doctors is rock bottom, there will be an impact on patients, there's no doubt about that."

He added: "The junior doctors' strike ultimately is just the latest manifestation of a system under impossible strain, and the finances of the NHS - with us projected to spend a reducing percentage of our national income, for goodness' sake - between now and 2020, given significantly rising demand... you cannot sustain this.

"What this dispute is about is the Government trying to stretch and overstretch resources even further and that's why junior doctors are so unhappy with this."

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