Junior NHS doctors in England are still set to strike for three days across December, but there may be some hope that the industrial action can be averted after the British Medical Association (BMA), the NHS and the government agreed to talks in a bid to resolve the contract dispute.
The parties are expected to launch negotiations when they meet at mitigation service Acas on 26 November at 10am GMT. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt initially rejected the idea of holding talks with the BMA, which represents more than 30,000 junior doctors, after 98% of its members voted for a walkout.
But with the medics planning to only provide emergency care on 1 December, and gearing up to stage a total walkout from 8am to 5pm GMT on 8 and 16 December, the top Conservative wrote to the BMA on 25 November calling for talks. "My strong preference is to get round the table and agree with the BMA how we do so in a way that you consider fair, and we are willing to listen and negotiate on any concerns," he said.
The union agreed to the negotiations, but urged the Health Secretary to remove the threat of "imposing" the planned new controversial contracts on junior doctors. Mark Porter, the council chair of the BMA, said: "It is encouraging that Hunt has made a significant shift in accepting the BMA offer of conciliatory talks through Acas, finally recognising the fact that trust has broken down between junior doctors and the government.
"However, junior doctors and the public, who by now will be used to Mr Hunt's political game playing, will not be surprised that he has waited until now to do the right thing."
The small breakthrough comes after Hunt promised to give the medics an 11% pay hike. But even with the salary rise, junior doctors were still worried that the new work agreements would leave them working longer hours for less pay and patients' safety would be put at risk.
"We are pleased that the parties involved in the junior doctors dispute have agreed to try Acas conciliation talks," an Acas spokesperson said.