Jeremy Hunt to impose new contract on junior doctors

Health secretary says introduction of contract will go ahead in October, after doctors rejected it in ballot

Jeremy Hunt has said he will impose a new contract on the 54,000 junior doctors in the NHS in England, after they rejected it in a ballot.

The health secretary said the phased introduction of the contract would go ahead as planned from October in order to move on from the uncertainty created by an impasse between himself and the British Medical Association – “a no man’s land that, if it continues, can only damage the NHS”, he said.

He rejected holding any further talks with the BMA, the doctors’ union, pointing out that three years of talks on new terms and conditions for junior doctors had failed to produce a final agreement.

Junior doctors accused Hunt of deliberately choosing the day of the Chilcot report’s publication to confirm that he was pushing ahead with a contract that is deeply unpopular with doctors. One leading junior doctor, who did not want to be named, said Hunt had selected “a good time to bury imposition”.

Hunt made the announcement in an oral statement in the House of Commons a day after the BMA disclosed that junior doctors had defied its leadership’s advice by rejecting – by 58% to 42% – the version of the contract it had agreed with ministers in May and recommended as the best terms that could be secured.

Around 37,000 doctors in training and final- and penultimate-year medical students – 68% of those eligible to vote – took part in the BMA’s ballot.

Hunt’s decision could lead to two separate but related legal actions being restarted in the high court in London, both of which had been stayed pending the outcome of the ratification ballot.

One, initiated by five campaigning junior doctors called Justice For Health, contends that Hunt has no legal power to impose the contract. The other, begun by the BMA, challenges the legality of the contract on gender equality grounds. Clarification on both is expected soon.

Hunt, who since the dispute began last September has repeatedly threatened to impose the contract if agreement is not reached, said it had been a difficult decision but one that he had had to take as “the only way to end this impasse”.

He told MPs that he was proceeding because NHS staff and patients needed certainty “at precisely the time we grapple with the enormous consequences of leaving the EU”.

Senior doctors have warned that imposing the contract will reduce rather than increase the number of recent medical graduates who choose to make their career in the English NHS.

Hunt once again criticised the BMA, saying it was “a union which has stirred up anger amongst its own members it is now unable to pacify”. But he praised the now former chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, Dr Johann Malawana, for trying to persuade grassroots doctors that the deal agreed in May was worth backing. Malawana resigned on Tuesday.

Hunt pointed out that as only 68% of doctors in training had voted in the BMA ballot, “only around a third of serving junior doctors actively voted against the agreement”.

Diane Abbott, the new shadow health secretary, replied: “There should be no suggestion that the junior doctors’ decision was illegitimate. The turnout was 68%, higher than the 2015 general election.”

The BMA has yet to respond to Hunt.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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