Junior doctors suspend next week's planned strikes amid patient safety concerns
Junior doctors have suspended strikes planned for next week amid concerns over patient safety.
Last week the British Medical Association (BMA) announced training medics would perform a series of strikes by withdrawing labour, including emergency care, for a week each month until the end of the year. The first wave of strikes was supposed to start on September 12.
But the union has said the first wave of industrial action has been suspended after health leaders said they needed more time to plan for the escalated action to protect patients.
However, further strikes scheduled for October, November and December will still go ahead, the BMA said.
Jeremy Hunt welcomed the announcement but said that the "most extreme strike action in NHS history" will be "damaging" for patients.
In a statement to the House of Commons, the Health Secretary said the forthcoming strikes would bring "unprecedented misery" on patients.
Mr Hunt told MPs: "This afternoon's news delaying the first strike is of course welcome but we mustn't let it obscure the fact that the remaining planned industrial action is unprecedented in length and severity and will be damaging for patients - some of whom will have already had operations cancelled."
He added: "It is deeply perplexing for patients, NHS leaders and indeed the Government, that the reaction of the BMA leadership, who previously supported this contract, is now to initiate the most extreme strike action in NHS history, inflicting unprecedented misery on millions of patients up and down the country.
"We currently anticipate that up to 100,000 elective operations will be cancelled and up to a million hospital appointments will be postponed."
He continued: "As with previous strikes we cannot give an absolute guarantee that patients will be safe but hospitals up and down the country will bust a gut to look after their patients."
Dr Ellen McCourt, chairman of the BMA's junior doctors' committee, said: "Patient safety remains doctors' primary concern which is why, following discussions with NHS England, the BMA has taken the decision to suspend next week's industrial action.
"While the BMA provided more than the required notice, we have taken this decision to ensure the NHS has the necessary time to prepare and to put in place contingency plans to protect patient safety.
"Our hospitals are chronically understaffed, our NHS is desperately underfunded - we have to listen to our colleagues when they tell us that they need more time to keep patients safe.
"Future action is still avoidable. The BMA has repeatedly said it will call off further action if the Government puts a halt to plans to force junior doctors to work under a contract they have rejected because they don't believe it is good for the future of patient care or the profession.
"I urge Jeremy Hunt to put patients first, listen to our concerns and end this dispute through talks."
Earlier, the doctors' regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), warned that patients would "suffer" given the scale of the action at such short notice.
But after the BMA made its latest announcement, GMC chairman Professor Terence Stephenson said: "This delay will give hospitals and other providers more time to plan for reduced medical cover, thereby reducing the impact and potential harm to patients."
The next action is scheduled for October 5, 6, 7, 10 and 11, November 14 to 18 and December 5 to 9, which will see junior doctors withdrawing from labour between the hours of 8am and 5pm, in the ongoing dispute over a new contract for training medics.
The Government and British Medical Association (BMA) remain at loggerheads over the contract, which the Department of Health says will help to provide a seven-day NHS.
Mr Hunt set out a series of "reassurances" about how a seven-day service would work.
He told the Commons the Government had committed to employ many more doctors to help meet the commitment.
"That means our plans are not predicated on simply stretching the existing workforce more thinly or diluting weekday cover," he said.
"We recognise that junior doctors already work very hard, including evenings and weekends, and whilst we do need to reduce weekend premium rates that make it difficult to deploy the correct levels of medical cover, we expect this policy to have greater implications to the working patterns of other workforce groups including consultants and diagnostic staff.
"Finally, we have no policy to require trusts to increase elective care at weekends, our seven-day services policy is focused on meeting four clinical standards relating to urgent and emergency care, meaning vulnerable patients on hospitals' wards at weekends will get checked more regularly in ward rounds by clinicians, and clinicians will be able to order important test results for their patients at weekends."
Six strikes have already taken place across England during the lengthy dispute, causing disruption to hundreds of thousands of patients who have had appointments and operations cancelled.
In May it looked as though a breakthrough had been reached in the dispute after both sides agreed to a new deal.
Then in July, the Government announced that it would impose a new contract after junior doctors and medical students voted to reject the contract brokered between health leaders and the BMA.
Labour's shadow health secretary Diane Abbott, who at the weekend said she would join junior doctors on the picket line, welcomed the delay in action.
She claimed the Health Secretary has attempted to vilify junior doctors in a bid to win the support of the public and urged him instead to withdraw the contract.
"The public simply don't believe you in your attempts to demonise junior doctors", she told the House.
"You have failed to convince the public that doctors are the enemy within and mere dupes of the BMA."
She added: "What could be more confrontational than seeking to impose a contract and, even at this late stage, I would like to ask you if you will listen to the junior doctors' leader, Dr Ellen McCourt.
"The public is looking for you to try and meet the junior doctors, stop vilifying, stop pretending they are the enemy within, and meet their reasonable demands."
Mr Hunt challenged her to put forward any evidence that he, or his colleagues, have vilified junior doctors during the row.