Doctors raise safety concerns following controversial government contract ruling

February 15, 2016

Fresh concerns have been raised about the safety of NHS service provision following the latest developments in the contentious ongoing row over the terms of the government's new contract for junior doctors.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been at loggerheads with the medical profession, as embodied by the British Medical Association (BMA), for a number of months due to fundamental disagreements over the new contract, the plans for which were first drawn up back in 2012.

With previous contract arrangements dating back to the 1990s, there is widespread agreement that refreshed contractual terms are needed; however, the discussion over the nature of these changes has resulted in a political impasse.

One of the government's key stated aims in reforming the contract is to address what it believes to be a serious safety problem surrounding the quality of care provided to NHS patients at weekends, with government research indicating that mortality rates tend to be significantly higher outside of weekdays.

However, the BMA has responded with fierce opposition with the move to remove the higher rate of pay currently available for weekend and evening work, which it believes will pave the way for doctors being asked to routinely work unsociable hours for less money.

This comes at a time when many parts of the NHS are struggling to recruit the number of workers they need in order to provide a safe service in the face of budget reductions and cutbacks, thus increasing the risk of existing staff becoming overworked, demoralised and prone to making mistakes.

As such, discontent with the contractual terms has led to talks breaking down repeatedly and the staging of industrial action on two occasions, with doctors across England providing emergency care only on January 12th and February 10th.

However, the strike action has failed to shift the government's position, with Mr Hunt subsequently confirming that the contract will be imposed upon staff without future discussions taking place.

The health secretary explained: "Our strong preference was for a negotiated solution. Our door remained open for three years, and we demonstrated time and again our willingness to negotiate with the BMA on the concerns that they raised. However, the definition of a negotiation is a discussion where both sides demonstrate flexibility and compromise on their original objectives, and the BMA ultimately proved unwilling to do this."

However, the BMA has contested this interpretation of events, saying it has refused to agree to the government's terms because they are fundamentally unfair and unsafe, while adding that it will continue to explore all of its options in order to try and push for a settlement that will be less punitive for medical workers.

BMA junior doctors committee chair Johann Malawana said: "If the government want more seven-day services then, quite simply, it needs more doctors, nurses and diagnostic staff, and the extra investment needed to deliver it. Rather than addressing these issues, the health secretary is ploughing ahead with proposals that are fundamentally unfair."

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