Jeremy Hunt
The health secretary appears to have retreated from his 'nuclear option' claim Neil Hall/Reuters

Jeremy Hunt is under growing pressure after appearing to change his tune over plans to impose a controversial new contract on junior doctors. The health secretary has backed down from his "nuclear option" claim of imposing the changes, insisting that he is simply "introducing" the contract, raising questions over whether he has been in breach of his powers by using the threat.

Hunt rejected any "change of approach" over the bitter row which has dragged on for months. A major source of tension came over plans to make junior doctors work more weekends for lower rates of pay, particularly on Saturdays. The climbdown comes as a High Court Challenge to formally begin a judicial review over whether the contract can be lawfully imposed gets underway on 18 April.

The protracted dispute has already seen medics stage four strikes over the new plans and further walkouts are planned on 26 and 27 April, including from Accident and Emergency wards. So far, 25,000 operations have been cancelled as a result of the strikes.

A five-page letter from the Government Legal Department published by the Guardian said Hunt decided to "proceed with the introduction of a new contract" but made no mention of "imposition." It dismisses the legal action as "simply misconceived."

The shadow health secretary criticised Hunt, saying government policy is now "in complete disarray". Heidi Alexander said: "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.

"The reason why this is so significant is that junior doctors have entered into a period of unprecedented industrial action off the back of his decision to impose the contract. If Jeremy Hunt is now claiming he isn't imposing the contract, then this also raises the prospect that he has misled parliament."

Last night (17 April), Alexander tweeted: "Lawyers admit Mr Hunt doesn't have power to 'impose' new junior doc contract. He's just making a suggestion ..."

Lib Dem's spokesperson for health, Norman Lamb described the situation as a "state of shambles". He said: "The government's latest legal position seems to show that Jeremy Hunt had no power to impose [the contract] all along.

"This is quite a dramatic change from the assumption that people have had that the health secretary is able to force junior doctors to abide by this contract. If he's changed the language from 'imposing' to 'introducing', it may be that there's no way the government can continue to try to get this contract implemented. It looks like the contract is dead in the water, that it has no life in it, like the dead parrot in Monty Python," added Lamb.

The government insists that the new contract will enable it to deliver a "seven-day" NHS, but junior doctors say it puts patient safety at risk. The dispute has grown increasingly hostile, leading to the first strike by junior doctors in over 40 years.