Jeremy Hunt has appealed to junior doctors not to withdraw emergency cover in the first all-out strike in NHS history, warning that the public would rightly question “whether this is proportionate or appropriate action by professionals whose patients depend on them”.
Junior doctors working across England are due to undertake a full walkout – refusing to provide emergency care, for the first time – on Tuesday and Wednesday from 8am to 5pm.
The industrial action has been called in opposition to a new contract which Hunt is set to impose on trainee medics in England, that will extend the hours that count as part of their normal working week, from 7pm to 10pm on weekdays and to include Saturday from 7am to 5pm for the first time.
In a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Hunt insisted he would push ahead with the contract in order to achieve the Conservative party manifesto commitment of turning the NHS into a seven-day service.
“Mr Speaker, we have many choices in life, but one thing over which we have no control is the day of the week we get ill. That’s why the first line of the first page of this government’s manifesto said that, if elected, we would deliver a seven-day NHS so we can promise NHS patients the same high quality care every day of the week.
“No trade union has the right to veto a manifesto promise voted for by the British people. I understand the frustration that many junior doctors feel that because of pressures on the NHS front line they’re not always able to give patients the highest quality of care that they would like to.
“I understand that some doctors may disagree with the government over our seven-day NHS plans and particularly the introduction of a new contract. I also understand that doctors work incredibly hard, including at weekends and that strong feelings exist over the single remaining area of disagreement of substance, saturday premium pay.
“But the new contract offers junior doctors who work frequently at weekends more Saturday premium pay than nurses, paramedics and the assistants who work in their own operating theatres, more than police officers, more than firefighters, and nearly every other worker in the public and private sectors.”
His statement in the Commons came after Hunt accused Labour of opportunism over its proposal to stop the strike by agreeing to limit the new junior doctors’ contract to a pilot scheme and introduce an independent audit of the impact of the new weekend working contract before its wider introduction.
The shadow health secretary, Heidi Alexander, former Tory health minister, Dan Poulter, the former Liberal Democrat minister for mental health, Norman Lamb, and the SNP’s health spokeswoman, Philippa Whitford, told Hunt in a letter that they wanted an independent evaluation of the “weekend effect”, in which mortality rates are higher for patients admitted outside the standard working week.
Responding to Hunt’s statement on Monday, Alexander said that Tuesday’s strike would be “one of the saddest days in the history of the NHS”.
Pointing to Hunt, she said: “The saddest thing is the person sat opposite me could have prevented it. Yesterday, the health secretary was presented with a genuine and constructive cross-party proposal to pilot the contract. This would have enabled him to make progress towards his seven-day commitment of seven-day services and crucially could have potentially averted this week’s strike. Any responsible health secretary would have grasped that opportunity immediately or at least considered it and discussed it.
“There is no escaping the fact that this is a time of unprecedented risk and you should have thought about that yesterday before dismissing a plan which could well have seen the strike averted. How can it be safe to impose a contract when no one knows what the impact will be on recruitment and retention, but everyone fears the worst?”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th April 2016 18.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010