The Health Secretary has urged the head of the British Medical Association to meet for 11th hour talks in a last-ditch effort to head off a full junior doctor walkout that Jeremy Hunt has said will cause an "unacceptable" risk of patient deaths.
Amid concerns that more than 125,000 operations and outpatients appointments have been cancelled for the strikes which take place on Tuesday (26 April) and Wednesday (27 April), Hunt urged doctors to think again, telling the BMA that it was not too late to call off the strikes.
"This proposed withdrawal of potentially life-saving care will worry people all over our country, and unacceptably brings into question the safety of patients who depend on the NHS," he said.
The Telegraph reported that Hunt sent a letter to BMA head Mark Porter, to which Porter replied that the strikes would only call off the strike if the Government withdrew its plan to impose new contracts.
Porter said: "For the sake of clarity, we must, once again, reject your assertion that the only outstanding issue in dispute relates to Saturday pay.
"Your own letter recognises a number of critical issues concerning work-life balance, excessive working hours, improvements in training and crucially, workforce and funding implications for seven-day services.
"The proposed contract is deficient in failing to address these issues properly. I hope that even at this stage we can find a way to step back from this dispute, from the imposition of a distrusted contract, and from the consequent industrial action," The Telegraph reported.
It comes as Hunt dismissed as opportunist a cross-party plan to avert the strike after shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander suggested testing the new contract in a small number of trusts, rather than impose it across England.
Patients are asked to stay away from A&E during the walkouts, which will be staged from 8am to 5pm each day, unless it is an emergency while hospitals bring in consultants as cover. A total of 12,711 non-urgent operations and 112,856 outpatient appointments have been cancelled.
A survey reported by the Guardian says that despite warnings from the General Medical Council, that the action could ruin public trust, a large majority of junior doctors will take part in the stoppages.
A separate report is due out on Monday (25 April) the day before the strikes, warning of short-staffing in hospitals with more than half of nurses polled saying they looked after more than eight patients at a time, which is the safe limit agreed by experts.