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Junior Doctors (New Contract)

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2015

8. What progress he has made on implementing a new contract for junior doctors; and if he will make a statement. (902115)

Junior doctors are the backbone of the NHS. It is highly regrettable that their union has let them down by refusing to negotiate a new contract that will be fairer for doctors and safer for patients, and deliver the truly seven-day services we all want.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but has he had an opportunity to speak to medical schools about the new contract for junior doctors, especially the Peninsula medical school in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency?

NHS Employers has regular discussions with the Medical Schools Council, which represents the Peninsula medical school. Although the training of doctors is not the specific contractual dispute that is in the headlines, it is something on which we could make significant improvements. We want to use this opportunity to work with medical schools and the royal colleges to see whether we can bring back some of the continuity of training that used to be such an important feature of junior doctors’ training.

The person who has let down junior doctors is none other than the Secretary of State. Does he recognise how insulting it is to those doctors to imply that they are not already working seven days? Crucially, will he listen to the professionals—junior doctors and their senior counterparts who support them—and drop his threat to impose the contract so that meaningful talks can take place?

What exactly would the hon. Lady say to her constituents who are not receiving the standard of care that they need seven days a week, and will she stand side-by-side with them, or with a union that has misrepresented the Government’s position? We have been clear that there are no preconditions to any talks, except that if we fail to make progress on the crucial issue of seven-day reform, we of course reserve the right to implement a manifesto commitment. That must be the way forward, and I urge the British Medical Association to come and negotiate rather than grandstand, so that we get the right answer for everyone.

I am deeply concerned about the impact on patient care caused by the proposed three days of industrial action, including two days of a full walk-out. Will the Secretary of State say what advance preparations are taking place to ensure patient safety? Will he reassure the House that there are no preconditions that will act as barriers and to which the BMA has to agree before negotiations can take place?

I absolutely give my hon. Friend that reassurance. There are no preconditions, and this morning I wrote again to the BMA to reiterate that point. Of course, if we fail to make progress we have to implement our manifesto commitments, but we are willing to talk about absolutely everything. I agree strongly with my hon. Friend that it will be difficult to avoid harm to patients during those three days of industrial action. Delaying a cancer clinic might mean that someone gets a later diagnosis than they should get, and a hip operation might be delayed when someone is in a great deal of pain. It will be hard to avoid such things impacting on patients, and I urge the BMA to listen to the royal colleges—and many others—and call off the strike.

It is 40 years since the last junior doctor strike—before I even started medical school. Given the ballot tomorrow, does the Secretary of State regret the antagonistic approach that he took before the summer towards senior and junior doctors? Should he instead have worked with them and not threatened to impose a contract so as to reach a stronger emergency seven-day service?

I do not know what the hon. Lady thinks is antagonistic about holding reasonable discussions with doctors for three years to try to solve the problem of seven-day care. Those discussions ended with the BMA, after two and a half years, walking away from negotiations last October. We made a manifesto commitment to have a seven-day NHS and to do the right thing for patients, and we simply asked the BMA to sit round the table and talk to us about it. I am confident that we can find a solution.

Claiming in July that senior doctors do not work outside 9 to 5 was perhaps felt to be antagonistic. Contrary to the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) last Monday, A&E figures for NHS England are 5% below those in Scotland. With such disappointing figures before we even get into winter or face a work-to-rule, and in the presence of eye-watering deficits, how does the Secretary of State plan to support hospital trusts through the winter?

I urge the hon. Lady to correct for the record her wholly untrue statement that I ever said that doctors do not work outside 9 to 5. That is exactly the kind of inflammatory comment that makes the current situation a whole lot worse than it needs to be. I have always recognised the work that doctors do at weekends, but I also recognise that we have three times less medical cover at weekends, which means that mortality rates are higher than they should be. On A&E performance, we are taking extensive measures to ensure that the NHS is prepared for winter. It will be a tough winter, but unnecessary and wholly avoidable industrial action by the BMA will make it worse.

17. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failed attempt by the BMA to get an injunction against the General Medical Council to stop it issuing guidance on how doctors should behave responsibly towards patients if there were to be a strike undermines the BMA’s claim that it is putting patient safety first? Will he assure the House that the BMA will have no veto on a seven-day NHS? That was a Conservative party manifesto commitment and it is what the vast majority of people in this country want. (902129)

My right hon. Friend championed the cause of patients when he was a Health Minister, and we must continue to do the right thing for patients, which is also the right thing for doctors. It is wholly inexplicable that the BMA should try to gag the GMC and stop it issuing guidance to doctors about their professional responsibilities. Whatever the disagreements over the contract, the most important thing is to keep patients safe.

I am sure that both sides of the House genuinely appreciate the excellent work done by all staff in our NHS, which at a time of unprecedented strain relies more than ever on the goodwill of its employees to keep going. We have to support and value our staff, not criticise them and provoke them when there is disagreement. Calling junior doctors militant is not the way to end a dispute, and we have heard more of the same rhetoric this morning. Industrial action is always a last resort when negotiations have failed. Does the Secretary of State accept any responsibility for that failure?

I accept total responsibility for doing the right thing to save patients’ lives. I have to say that I think that any holder of this office would be doing wholly the wrong thing if they were to try to brush under the carpet six academic studies that we have had in the last five years that say we have higher mortality rates at weekends than we should expect. This Government are on the side of patients and we will do something about that.