Strike action by junior doctors is “entirely avoidable”, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said in a letter urging the British Medical Association to restart negotiations over a proposed new contract that were halted in July.
Hunt wrote to the chair of the BMA's junior doctors' committee, Dr Johann Malawana, on Tuesday, just a day before a ballot on whether or not junior doctors will strike over the Department of Health's plans to impose the new contract.
In the letter, the health secretary said he wanted to restate his assurances that "no junior doctor would working within legal limits will see their pay cut and that none will be required to work longer hours".
He said the new contract would in fact "improve doctors' working conditions".
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.
The proposed contract would also remove incremental pay rises, with increases instead based on moving through the stages of training and taking on more responsibility. Doctors have said the new contract also removes safeguards that mean hospitals can be penalised for overworking juniors.
While Hunt has offered junior doctors a basic pay increase of 11% to compensate for the alteration of "sociable working hours", doctors have said that in reality, they still expect to see their pay cut by around 30–40%.
Last week the BMA announced that junior doctors would hold a day of emergency care only on 1 December and two days of full walkouts on 8 and 16 December if the result of the ballot is in favour of industrial action.
"I remain firmly of the view that a strike by junior doctors is entirely avoidable and we should both do all we can to avert any action that risks harm to the patients we serve," Hunt wrote.
He denied that the government was forcing the BMA to agree to preconditions before talks about changes to the contract could go ahead, which it has said is a barrier to reinstating meaningful negotiations.
"As I have made clear ... there are no preconditions to talks whatsoever," the letter reads.
But, Hunt added, "I am sure you understand that we reserve the right to make changes to the contracts if there is no progress on one of the issues preventing a truly 7 day NHS".
Hunt concluded that "the current contract does not fairly reward staff or protect patients", a mirror image of junior doctors' cry of "not safe, not fair", which has become something of a mantra among medical staff at recent protests against the contract.
Responding to Hunt's letter, the BMA said that they had been clear that they do want to get back around the negotiating table.
But in order to do this, a BMA spokesperson said in a statement, "the government must remove the threat of imposition and provide the reasonable assurances we need on a contract that is safe and fair, and delivers for patients, junior doctors and the NHS as a whole".
An announcement over whether junior doctors have voted in favour of industrial action is due this Thursday.
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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