By Louise Prime
Jeremy Hunt is backtracking over his longstanding threat to impose a new contract on junior doctors, claim both the BMA and the Labour Party – claims that the Health Secretary furiously denied in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon.
On Sunday night, Labour issued a statement from Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander claiming that “Government lawyers appear to be trying to rewrite history in an attempt to get Jeremy Hunt out of what could be a very significant legal problem.” She then asked Mr Hunt in the Commons yesterday why, in his oral statement on 11 February, he led Parliament, the media, the public and 50,000 junior doctors to believe that he was going to “railroad through a new contract”, when “it now appears that he is simply making a suggestion”. She demanded “a straightforward answer to a simple question: is the Health Secretary imposing a new contract – yes or no?”.
Ms Alexander asked the Health Secretary how he could possibly justify a situation in which “his rhetoric, underpinned by nothing but misplaced bravado and bullishness, could lead to the first ever all-out strike of junior doctors in the history of the NHS.” She insisted that he got back to the negotiating table – and quickly.
Mr Hunt responded that the Government had never planned to insist on changes to existing contracts. He told MPs: “The plan was only to offer new contracts as people changed employer and progressed through training … NHS foundation trusts are technically able to determine pay and conditions for the staff they employ, but the reality within the NHS is that we have a strong tradition of collective bargaining, so in practice trusts opt to use national contracts.”
The BMA echoed Heidi Alexander’s calls for clarity from Jeremy Hunt. Council chair Dr Mark Porter said: “Having announced to parliament that the government would impose a contract on junior doctors, he is now backtracking on this. His announcement of imposition is directly responsible for tens of thousands of junior doctors taking industrial action, souring relations with the medical profession at a time when the NHS is buckling.”
He added: “The government cannot continue to stick its head in the sand. It must now do what it has refused to for far too long: put patients first, listen to the many voices raising concerns about its plans, get back around the table and end this dispute through talks.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has added its voice to calls for the Health Secretary to return to the negotiating table, urging him and the BMA junior doctors to “step back from the brink” and fulfil their duty to do all they can to minimise patient care.
College president Professor Sir Simon Wessely said this morning: “This College will not tell its members how to respond … We also know that none of our members will be contemplating withdrawing their labour without considerable soul searching. That is how it should be.”
He went on: “We have the public trust. When we talk about patient safety, the public listen. We should not put this at risk lightly, and I am confident that all our members will take full account of this.”