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Doctors Taking Jeremy Hunt To Court Hope To Bring Transparency To Bitter Contract Row

One junior doctor told BuzzFeed News he hoped the case would be a "powerful reminder to politicians that actually you can’t bullshit to parliament."

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Junior doctors taking health secretary Jeremy Hunt to court this week hope that the case will bring a critical transparency to what has so far been a highly charged dispute.

The government and junior doctors have spent more than a year at loggerheads over proposed changes to the junior doctors' working terms and conditions, which Hunt believes would help deliver the Conservative party's 2015 manifesto pledge of a "truly seven-day NHS".

In July, Hunt announced that he would forcibly impose the new contract from October, despite 58% of junior doctors voting against it in a British Medical Association (BMA) ballot, prompting a new wave of strike action.

This week's case, which will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on 19 and 20 September, aims to examine whether Hunt has the legal power to impose the contract, and if he doesn't, whether he breached a duty of clarity in attempting to do so. It will also look at whether Hunt's rationale for imposing the contract is valid after much of the evidence he has used to justify the changes has been called into question.

"Where there’s been so much emotion from everyone overlaid on to it all, I think it will be fascinating to hear it in a much more critical sense," Dr Amar Mashru, one fifth of Justice For Health – the group of junior doctors who have brought the case against the health secretary to the high court – told BuzzFeed News.

For Mashru, the latter two grounds for challenge are especially key. "From a political point of view, the duty [of] clarity is going to be really telling," he told us. "Even just as quite a powerful reminder to politicians that actually you can’t bullshit to parliament."

He said that hearing Hunt's justifications for the contract, and doctors' oppositions to it "detailed quite systematically" in a neutral court setting will help both sides work out "what they feel happened, when it happened, and why it happened".

"There’s no demand for that level of honesty in everyday comms or PR, whereas this has to be a bit more pure than that," he added.

Mashru said he felt it was essential that policy decisions such as Hunt's "seven-day NHS" were devised and put before the government with total honesty about their justifications and transparency about how they will be implemented.

Since announcing his plans for the new junior doctors contract, which increases the number of doctors working weekends, Hunt has been accused of deliberately misrepresenting data on the number of deaths in hospitals at weekends for his own political gain.

"You can’t just get away with patting yourself on the back for being a smart-arse
with your words and say 'didn’t we spin this really well?'," Mashru said.

He also hoped that the outcome of the case might offer a renewed sense of purpose for doctors too.

Members of the BMA have previously been united in their opposition to the contract, but following the announcement of a series of five-day-long strikes have become increasingly divided.

The first strike, slated for 12-16 September was eventually cancelled after hospitals said they could not make contingency plans to protect patient safety in time, but plans for strikes in October, November and December remain in place.

But many BMA members have expressed discomfort with the strikes because of what has been perceived as an absence of obvious aims and objectives for the strikes.

Previous doctors strikes this year have explicitly urged the government to return to negotiations with the BMA, something Hunt has said he is no longer willing to do, but now, Mashru said, their message is "so ambiguous and clouded".

In order to continue justifying the strikes, "it needs to be crystal clear to everybody – particularly to the public, who we’re inconveniencing – exactly why we’re doing it and what exactly we hope to achieve from it," he continued.

One of the biggest criticisms Hunt has faced over the junior doctors contract is that changing' working patterns alone won't deliver what he is promising anyway.

Just last month, leaked documents from the government's own Department of Health showed that senior civil servants are concerned that there would not be enough money meet the demand of seven-day services, and NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson has said that seven-day services are "impossible" with current provision.

On Wednesday, the head of NHS England Simon Stevens told the Public Accounts Committee that he had not received three out of five years of funding he had been promised for the health service.

Mashru said he thought the government needed to start honestly managing the public's expectations of what they are realistically able to deliver.

"This idea that you can just create a few slogans and soundbites and hope that everything else will fall into place afterwards just feels painfully naïve if nothing else," he said.

"At the moment it’s [a case of] promise the public the world and then blame the staff when it’s not delivered."

Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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