The health secretary Jeremy Hunt has rejected a compromise brokered by the Labour Party designed to avert the junior doctors' strike on Tuesday (26 April) and Wednesday (27 April) . A cross-party group of MPs, led by the shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander, floated a proposal that would see the very controversial new junior doctors' contract limited to a pilot scheme before it was introduced across the NHS in England.
But Hunt has dismissed the idea, which was developed with support from the British Medical Association (BMA), as "opportunism".
Hospitals have been preparing for the mass walkout in which heavily pregnant women and cancer sufferers are among the 125,000 NHS patients whose hospital treatment has been postponed.
Almost 13,000 operations have been postponed and 113,000 appointments cancelled.
Earlier on Sunday (24 April), Alexander suggested that the BMA would talk to its members about calling off this week's "all-in" strike action, which would affect emergency care for the first time. The proposal included provisions for an independent audit of the impact of the new weekend working contract, which doctors' groups claim will harm patients.
The BMA believes that the "weekend effect" leads to higher mortality rates for patients admitted at odd times and that the imposition of the new contract will exacerbate risks.
Dismissing the proposal on Twitter, the health secretary said: "Labour 'plan' is opportunism – only 11% of junior docs go on to new contracts in August. We're staging implementation to ensure it works as intended. Any further delay just means we will take longer to eliminate weekend effect."
Hunt maintains that he will unilaterally impose the contract with or without the support of the BMA. In an open letter, addressed to BMA chairman Dr Mark Porter, on Sunday, Hunt demanded Porter call off the strike and to meet to discuss his concerns with the upcoming seven-day services.
In their own letter, the MPs added: "You will be aware that medical leaders, royal Colleges and patient groups have said the imposition or unilateral introduction of the contract is the wrong approach and risks permanent damage to the future of the medical workforce.
"If it remains your intention to introduce this new contract, we believe it should be piloted in a number of trusts/across a number of deaneries and for its impact on patients, staff and the 'weekend effect' to be independently evaluated."