The junior doctors committee of the British Medical Association denounced the health secretary’s offer, including an 11% rise in their basic pay, as nowhere near enough to assuage their fears over a new contract he plans to impose on them from next summer.
The further deterioration in relations between Hunt and the doctors’ union came as the BMA prepared to start balloting 30,000 junior medics in England about possible industrial action. Votes can be cast from Thursday and will be counted when the process ends on 18 November.
The union dismissed Hunt’s pledge that no junior doctor working within the current legal limits on their hours would have their pay cut compared with their current contract. It said future generations of junior doctors would be worse off.
Dr Johann Malawana, chair of the junior doctors committee, said: “The proposals on pay, not for the first time, appear to be misleading. The increase in basic pay would be offset by changes to pay for unsocial hours, devaluing the vital work junior doctors do at evenings and weekends. While in the short term existing junior doctors may have their pay protected, protections will only exist for a limited time.”
Malawana criticised Hunt for using “megaphone diplomacy” to publicise his offer instead of entering into genuine negotiation, and for giving details to the media before the BMA.
Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP and former GP who chairs the health select committee, endorsed the union’s annoyance at Hunt’s tactics. In a tweet she said: “Briefing journalists before negotiating team, really, when trying to resolve a tense dispute?”
Malawana reiterated that the BMA would resume negotiations over their future terms and conditions only if Hunt first agreed to “remove the threat of imposition and provide us with concrete assurances on a safe and fair contract”. He said the latest offer “falls short on both counts as, once again, the headlines do not match up to the reality.”
The BMA also criticised Hunt’s plan to remove safeguards in the existing junior doctors’ contract against hospitals forcing them to work excessive hours, and rejected his plan for the Care Quality Commission to ensure that that did not happen.
“Crucially, the proposals fail to deliver safeguards with real teeth to protect safe working patterns and, with it, patient and doctor safety,” Malawana said.
The Department of Health responded by stressing that the planned new contract would be fairer and safer for doctors and safer for patients and would lead to 75% of trainee doctors earning more than at present.
“We have put out a firm offer that protects the pay of every doctor working legal hours while actually increasing pay for the vast majority. It will reduce the maximum number of hours a doctor can work in a week and will improve patient safety as a result,” a spokesman said.
“Strike action always puts patients at risk. So this blinkered and persistent refusal by the BMA to engage with the government is extremely disappointing.”
In an unusual move, Hunt wrote directly to all 45,000 junior doctors in England – some do not belong to the BMA – in an attempt to persuade them to reject a strike.
If the ballot produces a majority in favour of industrial action, the first strike – probably next month – would involve junior doctors providing only emergency cover. If that failed to force Hunt’s hand they would move to an all-out strike of unspecified duration.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010