With a strike still planned for Wednesday 10 February, the BMA was accused by Jeremy Hunt of “spreading misinformation” about the terms being offered by the government and fuelling a sense of grievance among its members.
The BMA later hit back, saying it was Hunt himself who had “scared patients and the public” by using misleading figures about hospital death rates at weekends.
The government is introducing a new contract for junior doctors as part of its drive to put the NHS on a seven-day working basis and, although some of the issues dividing ministers and the BMA have been resolved, there is still a dispute about the expectation that doctors will work on Saturdays without receiving premium pay.
In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Hunt urged the BMA to return to the negotiating table instead of going on strike on Wednesday. He acknowledged junior doctors were angry but he claimed the BMA was partly responsible for that because of how it had represented the deal on offer.
“One of the reasons for that anger – and there is anger there – is because [junior doctors] were told by the BMA that their pay was going to be cut. It isn’t,” he said.
“They were told they were going to be asked to work longer hours. They aren’t; we are actually bringing down the hours they work. And if you are told by your union that the health secretary wants to do these awful things, of course you feel devalued.”
Hunt said that “totally irresponsible way” in which the BMA was refusing to engage in further talks and “spreading misinformation” was “incredibly disappointing”.
He said the new contract would be better not just for patients, because hospitals would be better staffed at weekends, but also for doctors because they would get better support from colleagues when working on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hunt added it was not surprising that he was unpopular with doctors, arguing this was normal whenever health secretaries tried to initiate change.
“The person who founded the NHS, Nye Bevan, was described three years after the second world war by the BMA as the ‘medical fuhrer’,” Hunt said. “Ken Clarke, when he was health secretary, they put up posters of him all over the country saying ‘What do you call a man who ignores medical advice?’ and there was Ken smoking his cigars.
“This is part of what happens when you’re health secretary. In the end, when the dust settles, you’ve got to do the right thing for patients.”
After the interview, Dr Johann Malawana, chair of the BMA’s junior doctor committee, claimed Hunt was ignoring the need for the NHS to receive more staff and extra funding.
“Junior doctors already work around the clock, seven days a week and they do so under their existing contract. If the government want more seven-day services, then, quite simply, they need more doctors, nurses and diagnostic staff, and the extra investment needed to deliver it,” Malawana said.
“This action is wholly avoidable but Jeremy Hunt’s shambolic mishandling of this situation means he risks alienating a generation of junior doctors and undermining the delivery of future patient care.”
Referring to the dispute about the significance of hospital weekend death rate figures that Hunt has released, Malawana also said Hunt was “still refusing to acknowledge that he has scared patients and the public, and angered NHS staff by misrepresenting statistics”.
When Hunt was asked about this in his interview, he said that although it was wrong to say every single extra weekend hospital death was avoidable, staffing levels were an issue that needed to be investigated as a possible explanation for the problem.
Labour said the health secretary should give ground on the issue of Saturday working in the interests of getting a deal with the BMA.
In an open letter to Hunt, Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, said: “I believe you should make an explicit and significant public commitment to further concessions on this point and I would encourage the BMA to re-enter negotiations should you do so.
“If you are not willing to do this, a new contract should not be imposed. Such a decision on your part could lead to protracted industrial action and widespread anger among other NHS staff at a time when morale is already at rock bottom.”
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 7th February 2016 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010