Jeremy Hunt
Will Jeremy Hunt keep his head above water and survive the petition calling for his dismissal? Reuters

The UK government repeated Jeremy Hunt's attacks on NHS consultants in a response to an online petition calling for the health secretary to be sacked, after he accused consultants of being responsible for a rise in patient deaths over weekends.

The retort reiterates the need for seven-day services, presents opt-out options and average salaries for consultants that put them "in the top 2% of earners in the country" – the same pay bracket as MPs, whose pay is to rise to £74,000, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – and briefly outlines new pay proposals.

But the response does not directly address the crescendo of calls to debate a vote of no confidence in Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, following his assertion that the British Medical Association (BMA) need to "get real" or he would impose new contacts on NHS staff.

The online petition has more than 189,000 signatures, surpassing the 100,000 public endorsements needed for the petition to be considered for debate in parliament by MPs.

The response, which was published on Friday and emailed to the petition's signatories on Saturday morning, reads: "The government is committed to working with the NHS so that seven-day services are available in all hospitals.

"Patients should get the same high quality, safe care on a Saturday and Sunday as they do on a weekday. This means having enough consultants available to assess and review patients, providing access to important diagnostic tests and ensuring that consultants are there to make crucial clinical judgements."

Hunt's death claims questioned

Despite the strong criticism of Hunt from the healthcare sector, the Channel 4 website Factcheck reported that a "weekend effect" does exist.

An Imperial College study looking at emergency admissions in England in 2005/06 "found that the odds of you dying in hospital were 10% higher if you were admitted at the weekend".

But similiar 'weekend effects' were found in health services across the world, and the causes for the rise in deaths at the weekend is not clear, according to Factcheck.

The study, believed to be one of those used by Hunt to justify his claims, examined 50 medical conditions associated with a high number of deaths following hospital admissions. It found that only 17 were associated with higher risk of death at the weekend, but it could not identify specific reasons for the increase.

Factcheck also quoted another study that showed people admitted to hospital during a weekend were overall less likely to die in hospital, than those admitted on a weekday.

Government's proposals

To help counter the increase in the weekend death rate, number 10's fact sheet proposes access to weekend diagnostics, providing more out-of-hospital care so that people can be discharged at weekends, and making sure there is adequate staffing among other clinical groups.

The government has not announced how it plans to fund seven-day healthcare system, except for Chancellor George Osborne insisting during his summer Budget that "the NHS is only truly safe in Conservative hands".

Parliament now has four days to state whether a debate over a no-confidence vote in Hunt will be held.