Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been branded a "disgrace" for failing to face a grilling from Labour over the junior doctors' dispute. Heidi Alexander launched the scathing attack after health minister Ben Gummer replied to the shadow health secretary's urgent question in the House of Commons on 24 March.

"This is a worrying time for patients and the NHS, and it is nothing short of a disgrace that yet again the Health Secretary has failed to turn up. If this walkout goes ahead, this will be the first time ever junior doctors have fully withdrawn their labour. Nobody wants that to happen," Alexander declared.

A Department of Health source told IBTimes UK the dispute was within Gummer's remit, but would not reveal Hunt's whereabouts.

Alexander's comments come after Gummer accused the British Medical Association (BMA) of holding the government to ransom by escalating its industrial action.

Views from behind the picket line IBTimes UK

"At some point a democratically-elected government must be able to proceed to fulfil the promises it has made to the people. Governments cannot be held hostage by a union that refuses to negotiate," the minister claimed.

The minister also described the union's decision to plan a total walkout of NHS junior doctors in April as "entirely disproportionate and highly irresponsible". Gummer added: "We will do all in our power to ensure that patients are protected. However, given that patients presenting at hospitals in an emergency are often at the point of extreme danger, the action taken by the BMA will inevitably put patients in harm's way."

The BMA has blamed the government's handling of the contract dispute for its reason to hold a full strike from 8am to 5pm on 26 April and 8am to 5pm on the following day. The action will be the first time in NHS history that junior doctors walk out of emergency care.

"No junior doctor wants to take this action but the government has left us with no choice," Dr Johann Malawana, BMA junior doctor committee chair, said. "In refusing to lift imposition and listen to junior doctors' outstanding concerns, the government will bear direct responsibility for the first full walkout of doctors in this country."