A defiant Jeremy Hunt has confirmed to MPs that he will impose a new contract on junior doctors working for NHS England. The health secretary made the dramatic announcement a day after thousands of British Medical Association (BMA) members walked out of non-emergency work for 24 hours in protest over the proposed pay and work conditions.
The union has argued that the new contract would leave the junior doctors worse off and put patients at risk because of increased working hours. But the Department of Health has maintained the new agreements are vital for a 24/7 NHS service in England, while Hunt has promised to increase the basic pay of the doctors by 13.5% (up from the previous offer of 11%).
"The strike that took place last week was unnecessary while talks are ongoing, so it's extremely welcome news that the BMA has suspended next week's action, though as it stands emergency care will still be withdrawn in February," a spokesperson for the ministry said.
"In the end, the government and junior doctors want to do the same thing by improving patient care at weekends – and we look forward to further constructive discussions."
Labour has officially stayed out of the industrial dispute. But the party's shadow health secretary had previously urged Hunt to drop plans of forcing through the new contracts.
"We urgently need to see a resolution to this dispute, which doesn't involve imposing a new contract. Hunt needs to stop hiding behind his desk in the Department of Health and get back round the negotiating table," she argued.
Almost 3,000 operations were cancelled across England due to the BMA's latest strike. But the junior doctors have the public on side, with 64% of voters blaming the Conservative government for the dispute, according to Ipsos Mori.
Dr Roshana Mehdian, an orthopaedic surgeon, accused Hunt of "failing" patients, the NHS and the country with his decision. Dr Johann Malawana, BMA junior doctor committee chair, claimed Hunt's decision is a "sign of total failure" from the government.
"The government's shambolic handling of this process from start to finish has totally alienated a generation of junior doctors – the hospital doctors and GPs of the future, and there is a real risk that some will vote with their feet," he said.
"Our message to the Government is clear: junior doctors cannot and will not accept a contract that is bad for the future of patient care, the profession and the NHS as a whole, and we will consider all options open to us."