Labour just called an "urgent question" in the House of Commons over junior doctors' plans to strike. But health secretary Jeremy Hunt didn't turn up.
Instead it was left to health minister Alistair Burt to answer questions from MPs about three planned strikes by doctors next month.
Junior doctors have overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action over proposed new contracts. The British Medical Association said on Thursday that 98% of those balloted were prepared to take part in strike action, with a 76% turnout.
Labour MPs were furious that Hunt ducked the chance to face MPs on the issue. Liz McInnes, MP for Heywood and Middleton, asked: "If the secretary of state is doing everything he can, where is he today?"
Burt said Hunt was busy working on plans for the spending review, which is being unveiled by chancellor George Osborne next Wednesday.
"The other thing he's working on is contingency plans to make sure the NHS is safe," Burt said. "I think that's pretty important work he should be doing."
Clive Efford, MP for Eltham, hit back: "The minister has just told us that the secretary of state is across the road in his office and he can't be bothered to come here and account for an unprecedented strike amongst junior doctors in our NHS. That is an absolute disgrace."
Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said it was the second time Hunt hadn't turned up for an urgent statement. She accused him of "hiding in his bunker in Richmond House", the Department of Health HQ.
Commons Speaker John Bercow said he wasn't sure where Hunt was. "I hope that whatever he's doing, he's enjoying himself," he said.
Alexander said: "The truth is if we'd had a little less posturing and a little more conversation from the health secretary, this whole sorry episode could have been avoided.
"Do you agree with me that over the course of the next week, everything that can be done, should be done, to stop the three days of planned industrial action?"
Burt replied: "It is regrettable that junior doctors have voted for industrial action which will put patients at risk and see between 50,000 and 60,000 operations cancelled or delayed each day.
"I would therefore call upon you to join the government in calling on the BMA, as it prepares for unprecedented strike action, to come back to the table."
A revised junior doctors contract proposed by Hunt in order to promote a "seven-day NHS" is planned to go ahead next August. The new contract would see "sociable working hours", for which junior doctors are paid a standard rate, change from 7am–7pm Monday–Friday to 7am–10pm Monday–Friday and 7am–7pm on Saturdays.
Doctors say that despite Hunt's offer of an 11% increase to basic pay, the changes to "sociable working hours" would mean many could see a pay decrease of around 30–40%.
The proposed strike dates are as follows:
* Emergency care only — from 8am, Tuesday 1 December, to 8am, Wednesday 2 December.
* Full walkout — from 8am to 5pm, Tuesday 8 December.
* Full walkout — from 8am to 5pm, Wednesday 16 December.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at email@example.com.
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