Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has blamed the BMA for taking ‘so long’ to agree to negotiate the junior doctor contract, but added that he thinks doctors ‘realise’ that the plans for greater seven-day services are ’the best thing for patients and doctors’.
Commenting on the last-minute aversion of a junior doctor strike today, Mr Hunt said it was a ‘tragedy’ that the BMA had not wanted to ‘actually sit around the table and discuss it’.
Mr Hunt’s comments have been viewed as inflammatory by junior doctors, whose bid to take the dispute to conciliatory talks led by Acas was initially refused by the health secretary.
Junior doctors’ leaders have previously said that they are prepared to negotiate with the Government if they are given assurances that there will be no contract imposition, and that Saturday and evening work will be treated as unsociable hours.
Mr Hunt waited until the eve of strike action to withdraw – temporarily – his threat of imposition, via a House of Commons statement delivered yesterday afternoon.
The health secretary told Sky News: ’The tragedy is that it took so long for the BMA to want to actually sit around the table and discuss it.
’But when they did, as doctors, I think they did realise that what we were trying to do was the best thing for patients and for doctors. I hope now we can make progress.’
Doctors have said that the comments were ’inflammatory’.
Dr David Coleman, a GP in South Yorkshire, said: ’More inflammatory comments from Hunt – a great starting point for fresh negotiations’, while Dr Kaanthan Jawahar, a psychiatric trainee in the East Midlands, said ’Jeremy Hunt’s greatest skill is to say something inflammatory whenever the dust tries to settle’.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said that ’the Government’s handling of these negotiations has been a lesson in precisely how not to do it’.
She said: ’If Jeremy Hunt had agreed to independent talks when it was first put to him he could have avoided or at least mitigated any disruption to patients [today].
’Unfortunately, it will now be too late to rearrange the operations and appointments that have been cancelled and those patients deserve an apology from Jeremy Hunt.’
The current dispute centres on proposals from the Review Body on Doctors and Dentists Remuneration (DDRB), which the Government has said it may impose on junior doctors.
Under the proposals, Saturday and evening working will no longer count as ‘unsociable hours’ for junior doctors, meaning that trainees who do lots of out-of-hours work will see their salaries cut.
For GP trainees, the proposals will remove the current guarantee of pay parity with hospital doctors, known as the GP registrar supplement.
The strikes had been planned for three dates in December, starting today. As it stands, the BMA’s strike ballot – which saw 98% of junior doctors support a full walkout – is valid until 13 January, meaning the BMA could still call strike action.