Jeremy Hunt backs Acas talks in bid to avoid junior doctors strike

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The Government will agree to talks with Acas in a bid to avoid strike action by thousands of junior doctors, the Health Secretary has said.

In a letter to the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), Jeremy Hunt said "any talks are better than strikes", which themselves posed a "serious threat" to patient safety.

The U-turn comes after Mr Hunt said last week that he would not agree to talks with Acas unless BMA officials came back to the negotiating table first.

But in his letter sent today, Mr 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.

The BMA had insisted that talks must go through Acas after 98% of doctors balloted over strike action said they were in favour.

Mr Hunt said: "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."

In his letter to Dr Mark Porter, Mr 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 planned three days of strikes 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' 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 the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) for help with talks with Mr Hunt and NHS Employers.

Mr Hunt then said the Government would be "very, very happy to look at that possibility at a later stage" of bringing in Acas, but insisted the BMA agree to talks first.

A total of 98% of junior doctors voted in favour of strikes, with 2% against and 11 spoilt ballot papers.

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 December 1, followed by full walkouts from 8am to 5pm on December 8 and 16.

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.

Mr Hunt previously tried to avert strikes with a fresh deal, including an 11% rise in basic pay.

This is offset by plans to cut the number of hours on a weekend that junior doctors can 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.

Mr Hunt argues that, under the new deal, just 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.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: "Employers across the NHS will welcome a return to discussions with the BMA, working with Acas conciliation services.

"I remain hopeful that through our joint endeavours we can end this dispute, and modernise the contracts for doctors whilst also addressing their concerns."