Junior doctor’s strike stopped at eleventh hour as “direct and meaningful” talks to resume

NHS Junior Doctors

Independent employment conciliation service ACAS says the junior doctors strike has been postponed following “productive talks” between trade union the BMA, NHS Employers and the Department of Health.

ACAS says that all parties are now committed to reaching an agreement that improves safety for both patients and doctors – described as paramount - via what it describes as “direct and meaningful negotiations”.

Under the latest development in the long-running dispute, the BMA has agreed to defer strike action under a new timeframe of four weeks to allow negotiations to progress. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also agreed not to continue at this juncture with plans to impose the controversial new contract. The BMA now has until 5pm on January 13 to reach a permanent solution or resume industrial action.

According to a statement from ACAS, all parties are now seeking to implement a new contractual framework which provides “fair reward and a safe working environment” for junior doctors.

Impact of action

A statement published on the BMA’s website expressed disappointment that it had taken “until the eleventh hour for the health secretary to drop his threat of imposition” late on November 30, just hours before the strike was due to begin. This meant that many hospitals and patients still faced disruption, with around 4,000 appointments and operations cancelled or rescheduled.

According to information obtained by the Press Association, the impact on trusts has been varied, with some trusts cancelling up to 80% of appointments and operations while others have managed to keep cancellations to a minimum – as low as 10%. Across the board, the figure for cancelled appointments and operations is believed to be between 10 and 15%.

Despite this, many patients have expressed support for junior doctors.

Surgery Operation

Tony Moules, who had his back surgery cancelled for the fourth time as part of strike preparations, told the BBC that, despite being frustrated and in pain, he is “100%” behind the doctors. He says: “I don’t blame them. They do a cracking job”.

Dr Barbara Hakin, of NHS England, describes the breakthrough in negotiations as "pleasing".

"This is in the best interests of patients, although we can only apologise for the disruption caused to anyone who has already had their operations cancelled," she adds.

Seven-day NHS?

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says changes to the contract were needed because the current system makes it too difficult for hospitals to efficiently roster urgent and emergency care evenly across seven days, but the BMA has argued that, alongside what in real terms constitutes a pay cut for many doctors, the proposed changes could result in unsafe working conditions due to a deterioration of safeguards relating to excessive working hours.

The concept of a seven-day service has been the subject of heated debate over recent months, with many NHS staff reacting angrily to what they perceive as criticism for not working hard enough or for opting out of weekend working.

The debate surrounding the idea, first proposed in 2013 by NHS England's Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, was reinvigorated by David Cameron in the run up to this year's general election when he pledged in the Conservative manifesto to deliver "a truly seven-day NHS by 2020". The concept was partially borne out of debate surrounding the review by Keogh of mortality data from the Department of Health. The data, based on information relating to 14.5 million patients and gathered in 2009/10, appeared to suggest a 16% increased chance of death within 30 days for those admitted to hospital via Accident & Emergency on a Sunday and an 11% increase for those admitted on a Saturday, in comparison to those admitted on a Wednesday. Conversely, of the 187,337 deaths that fell into this group, more people actually passed away mid-week than at the weekend.

A review of the findings, published on NHS Choices as far back as 2012, said that the study did not examine the reasons behind the apparent increase in risk of death, so "no assumptions should be drawn about staffing levels or the availability of senior staff".

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Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.