Health secretary Jeremy Hunt launched a strong defence of the Government’s role in the junior doctors contract dispute, saying he will not be ‘held to ransom’ by the health profession over plans for a seven-day NHS.
Speaking at a Nuffield Trust conference today, Mr Hunt said that backing down from the junior doctors’ contract dispute in light of the strike action organised by the BMA would have been the ‘wrong thing to do’.
This would have ‘set a precedent’ that groups can ‘hold patients and the Government to ransom by completely unreasonable behaviour’, he added.
Mr Hunt imposed the contract last month, after negotiations with the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee had broken down.
He admitted that the junior doctor contract was not only factor standing in the way of the Government’s plan – with other obstacles including the consultants contract and seven-day general practice – but said imposing the junior doctors contract was necessary to ‘move forward’.
Mr Hunt said: ‘I have always been very clear that the junior doctors contract is a part of what we need for a seven-day NHS, but only one part, there are lots of other things. The consultants’ contract, seven-day diagnostics, a seven-day social care system, seven-day services through general practice – all very important parts of that commitment.’
’But in the end, we have to make important steps forward and the Government’s position was to sit down and say that we want to have a reasonable negotiation about having a modern contract for junior doctors that would improve care for patients.’
Mr Hunt said that ‘despite a huge amount of effort, it was not possible to get any movement from the BMA’.
The health secretary added: ‘I think if I had done anything differently, it would have been a very backward step, because it would have sent a signal to the service and to the country – that a group is able to hold patients and the Government to ransom by completely unreasonable behaviour.’
Mr Hunt added that he believed that in future, this would be looked back on as the ‘quality decade’ for the NHS, when difficult decisions were taken to improve the system.
His comments come as the BMA has said there will be further strike action against the junior doctor contract imposition and as GPs could threaten with mass resignations unless the Government comes up with an agreeable ‘rescue deal’ for general practice within six months.