As hospitals around the UK brace themselves for having to cancel thousands of planned operations and outpatient clinics, Hunt urged doctors to reconsider before “rushing to the barricades” as hospitals are struggling to cope.
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, the health secretary attacked what he said were hardline elements within the BMA – the doctors’ trade union.
“There is a tradition inside the BMA of taking very extreme positions against the health secretary of the day,” he said. “Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, was described as the medical führer by the BMA only three years after the second world war. So to a certain extent you take some of the brickbats with a pinch of salt. That’s part of the cut and thrust of the political world.
“But patients must always come before politics. Whatever the political heat of the moment, whatever the anger in the end, patients have to come first.
“Of course it’s a concern if some elements within the BMA are seeing this as a political opportunity to bash a Tory government that they hate. I am sure the vast majority of doctors are not in that place.
“I think it’s really important that the BMA leadership rein in any elements who are looking at this strike in that way because that would be the worst possible thing for the NHS.”
About 45,000 junior doctors in England have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action and will provide only emergency cover on Tuesday. The BMA has blamed the walkouts on “the government’s continued failure to address junior doctors’ concerns about the need for robust contractual safeguards on safe working, and proper recognition for those working unsocial hours”.
The action comes at a time when the health service is already struggling to cope with patient demand across England, Wales and Scotland, leaving some facilities with more patients than beds.
Hunt said the government is now going through the “exhaustive process” of contacting every A&E department in the country to establish whether they will have enough staff to stay open on Tuesday.
“I know that many hospitals will ask consultants and other staff to step in for that day,” said Hunt. “But we also have to be honest that hospitals are stretched at the moment, There are some hospitals that have large numbers of vacancies.”
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, told the Sunday Times she had sympathy with the junior doctors but wanted them to call off the strike. “Industrial action will lead to patients suffering, and no doctor wants to see that happen,” she said.
Talks between the Department of Health and the BMA broke down last week after a hour when doctors walked out, claimed Hunt, who has been accused of megaphone diplomacy. The BMA said Hunt had not offered junior doctors meaningful, substantial concessions during three weeks of negotiations, which began in early December and resumed last Monday after the Christmas break.
Dr Mark Porter, chair of the BMA council, said last week the government was still not taking junior doctors’ concerns seriously and had repeatedly dragged its feet throughout, initially rejecting an offer of talks and failing to make significant movement during negotiations.
He said junior doctors had been left with no option and that the government’s proposals would be bad for patient care as well as junior doctors in the long term.
The areas of disagreement include: plans by Hunt to scrap the system of automatic annual pay rises for junior doctors; how to stop hospitals forcing them to work dangerously long hours; and the demarcation of the periods of the week for which they receive only basic pay for working as opposed to overtime.
The first industrial action by junior doctors since November 1975 will result in those in England providing only emergency cover for 24 hours from 8am on Tuesday, leading to a much reduced level of operation. They will stage the same withdrawal of labour for 48 hours from 8am on 26 January, and then stage one all-out strike between 8am and 5pm on Wednesday 10 February.
This article was written by Mark Tran, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th January 2016 11.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010