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Health secretary rolls back on claim that no junior doctors will lose out

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted his ‘cast-iron’ guarantee that no junior doctor’s individual pay would reduce with proposed contract changes does not apply to everyone.

Put on the spot by MPs in a House of Commons debate requested by the Labour Party yesterday, Mr Hunt was forced to admit doctors opted out of the European Working Time Directive, working more than 56 hours per week, would not see their pay protected.

Ahead of the debate, Mr Hunt sent a new plea to the BMA to return to the negotiation table ahead of a strike ballot next week.

But the BMA said his new admission was just another example to prove it could not trust the Government in negotiations.

At the debate, former Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb said that Mr Hunt had said junior doctors ’working within maximum legal hours’ – ie, the 48 hours a week specified by the EWTD – would not see their pay go down.

Mr Lamb asked: ’What about doctors who have opted out of [the EWTD] and are working 60 or 70 hours? Could they lose out?’

Mr Hunt responded: ’If they opted out of the working time directive, [the commitment] would apply up to 56 hours.

’For people who are working more than the legal limits, even after opting out, the right answer is to stop them working those extra hours because it is not safe for patients.’

Just hours previously, Mr Hunt had pleaded with the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee to replace the strike ballot with negotiations – reiterating the claim that no junior doctor would see their pay cut. 

He wrote: ’Today in the House of Commons I am giving a firm guarantee on behalf of the Government that no junior doctor will see their pay cut compared to their current contract… As the Junior Doctors Committee moves towards a ballot of its members, I will be setting out the full details of the Government’s contractual offer to junior doctors in the coming days.

’However, I sincerely hope that on the basis of these assurances you will reconsider your refusal to enter negotiations.’

But JDC chair Dr Johann Malawana responded: ’Just hours after promising that no junior doctor would have a pay cut, Jeremy Hunt has now admitted that those working the longest hours would in fact see their pay fall. Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly shifted his position and this is another example of the health secretary claiming one thing, but the reality being quite different.

‘It makes it impossible for junior doctors to trust the Government when they have been caught out trying to gloss over the facts.’

The Commons debate also saw Mr Hunt warned against removing the GP training supplement, with Scottish National Party MP for Central Ayrshire Dr Philippa Whitford, a former hospital consultant, saying: ’There has also been talk of taking away the guaranteed income protection of GP trainees, there to try to keep them at the same level as they were, and replacing it with a discretionary payment. Such a payment can be taken away at any time – it can be cut and it can be changed.

’The secretary of state aspires to have 5,000 extra GPs by 2020. We know from the BMA that one third of GPs – 10,000 out of just over 30,000 – are planning to leave, which means we need to find 15,000 extra GPs. Anything that is a disincentive for people to go into that profession is not serving the NHS.’

As well as removing the GP training supplement, the proposed changes, which would come into effect next August, would extend the definition of ’sociable’ hours, so that Saturday and evening work would be paid the same as standard weekday working.