Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt has personally vetoed a proposal that would have ended the junior doctors’ strike, sources close to the British Medical Association (BMA) have claimed.
The deal reportedly addressed the dispute over Saturday pay, reducing the rate but acknowledging that it should not be considered an ordinary working day.
Sources told The Independent that the deal was supported by the NHS’s own negotiators and that “the one person who would not agree was Jeremy Hunt.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Health responded to the claims to The Independent, saying the allegations were “completely untrue”. The newspaper said the government was reluctant to yield to the demands of junior doctors, fearful it could set a precedent for nurses and other NHS staff, who are expected to enter negotiations about contracts in the coming months.
Reduction in weekend pay was first proposed by the government in response to reports of higher mortality rates amongst patients admitted to hospital at the weekend.
The contractual changes were intended to make it easier to dispatch more junior doctors on Saturdays and Sundays. To make up for the cut in weekend pay, a basic pay rise was initiated.
However, junior doctors opposing the proposals have stressed that the dispute is about more than money.
They argue that their main concerns are working conditions, staff demoralisation and the resulting risk to patients.
Due to the breakdown in negotiations, a second 24-hour strike began on Wednesday, which saw tens of thousands of junior doctors walk out of all but emergency care.
A petition calling for a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt has gathered over 190,000 signatures.
The Student spoke to Eleanor Dow, a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, about the strikes.
Dow has been instrumental in organizing much of the activism about the issue on campus.
In response to the reports that Jeremy Hunt vetoed a proposal that would have ended the strikes, she said: “If these claims are true, it is hard to understand the specific reasoning of vetoing an agreement that could have potentially ended the strike”.
She continued: “However […] there are obviously reasons as to why a contract demanded by doctors and the BMA doesn’t fit into the government agenda for the healthcare systems.
“It is important that we stand our ground and keep to our agenda of promoting patient care and fair working conditions.”
Asked about the almost-3,000 strong operations that have reportedly been cancelled due to the strikes, she said: “I think the BMA have been very good at organizing the strikes to cause as little disruption as possible, and there has been a lot of support from patients, even those who have had cancelled appointments”.
She continued: “I think long-term, by yielding to the government’s proposals, there would be a greater risk to patients because of the impact of long and unsafe working hours and a demoralised, understaffed workforce”.
She said: “we’ve been doing a lot of public engagement stuff; social media support, saying that Edinburgh students support the strike, emphasizing it will affect everyone in the UK. The student sabbatical officers at EUSA have been very supportive.
“This means that medical students can go through the whole of their training without really understanding how the healthcare system works, which means we are not empowered to make changes or speak out on systemic issues which may undermine patient care”.
She clarified: “I also think it is vital to show solidarity to our colleagues and friends on the picket lines and it is very likely that the government’s proposals will have will be felt across the NHS”.
Dow also told The Student that she and some other students were given permission from the head of the medical school to set up a stall on the day of the second strikes, to inform people of what was happening.
However, she spoke of the issues they encountered in doing so, saying: “when we arrived we were told we couldn’t actually hold the stall because we had not had permission from the whole building.
“When we said we had permission from the head of the school, we were allowed to go ahead but it’s disappointing to know there is so little encouragement within the school to inform people about what’s happening”.
Jeremy Hunt has faced criticism for failing to face the junior doctors themselves about the proposed changes to doctors contracts.
Dr Dagan Lonsdale, a junior doctor, told Sky News earlier this month: It’s a shame that Mr Hunt refuses to speak to junior doctors like me who actually work on the front line. We’re doing this job day in day out, we can see what the harm is there will be in this new contract were it to be imposed.”
“He is taking a gamble with people’s lives, and that’s why doctors like me are so angry.” Londsdale continued.
Image credit: Rhon Francis