Jeremy Hunt agrees to ACAS talks with junior doctors

From The Guardian:

The government will agree to talks with Acas in an attempt to avoid strike action by thousands of junior doctors, Jeremy Hunt has said.

In a letter to the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), the health secretary said “any talks are better than strikes”. He said the proposed walkouts next month posed a serious threat to patient safety.

Last week Hunt said he would not agree to talks involving the mediation service Acas unless BMA officials came back to the negotiating table first. The BMA insisted talks must go through Acas.

In his letter sent on Wednesday, Hunt said he was happy “in the first instance” for his officials and NHS Employers, which negotiates on behalf of the government, to commence talks with the BMA using Acas.

Last week 98% of junior doctors who took part in a BMA ballot voted in favour of strike action in protest at the government’s decision to impose a contract on them that they regard as unfair and unsafe.

Hunt wrote: “Achieving a negotiated solution on the junior doctors’ contract has been my objective from the outset. We have always been willing to talk without preconditions, and we have extended numerous invitations to do so both publicly and privately.

“I am disappointed by the BMA’s continued refusal to take up that offer, particularly given we have already been through one independent process with the DDRB (review body on doctors’ and dentists’ remuneration), and you have not yet even been willing to discuss their recommendations with us. Patient safety has been my absolute priority throughout my tenure as health secretary.

“The extreme strike action planned in December poses a serious threat to that safety. Whilst I believe the right thing to do is to return to the negotiating table directly, it is clear that any talks are better than strikes, so in the first instance I am very happy for my officials and NHS Employers to commence those talks using Acas conciliation services.”

Hunt stressed that it was “vital that we now press ahead with changes to the consultants and junior contracts to help tackle unacceptable variations in weekend mortality rates by improving medical cover at weekends, which is a key part of the solution”.

He said his “strong preference” was to get round the table and agree this with the BMA, and called for the three days of strikes already announced – on 1, 8 and 16 December – to be called off.

“Given we will shortly be commencing with Acas our first negotiations in over a year, I would also urge you to think again about whether extreme strike action in the NHS’s busiest period – which will at best disrupt patient care and at worst cause serious harm to patients – is appropriate or necessary,” he wrote.

“I believe it’s time to work together to improve weekend care – as promised to the British people in our election manifesto – and avoid harming vulnerable patients by postponing your planned action and resolving our differences through talks, not strikes.”

Last week, the BMA said it had contacted Acas for help with talks with Hunt and NHS Employers. Hunt then said the government would be “very, very happy to look at that possibility at a later stage” but insisted the BMA agree to talks first.

More than 37,000 doctors were balloted by the BMA, and 76% took part in the vote. Doctors are poised to take action over three days, providing emergency care only for 24 hours from 8am on 1 December, followed by full walkouts from 8am to 5pm on 8 and 16 December.

There would be mass disruption to the NHS, with hospitals forced to cancel outpatient clinics and non-urgent operations. The new contract is set to be imposed from next summer on doctors working up to consultant level.

Hunt previously tried to avert strikes by offering a fresh deal including an 11% rise in basic pay. This was offset by plans to cut the number of hours on a weekend that junior doctors could claim extra pay for “unsocial” hours.

Currently, 7pm to 7am Monday to Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday attract a premium rate of pay. Under the new plans, a higher rate would run from 10pm to 7am Monday to Friday, and from 7pm on Saturday evenings – a concession on the previous 10pm.

Hunt argues that, under the new deal, 1% of doctors would lose pay, and those would be limited to doctors working too many hours already. The BMA has said the increase in basic pay is misleading due to the changes to pay for unsocial hours. It also has other concerns over flexible pay plans for some specialities.

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