Jeremy Hunt: BMA's actions in contract row made doctors feel devalued


Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has acknowledged the low morale and anger among junior doctors but blamed the British Medical Association (BMA) for exacerbating the bitter dispute over new contracts.

With thousands of junior doctors in England set to go on strike again on Wednesday, Mr Hunt accused the union of behaving in a "totally irresponsible way" and "spreading misinformation" about the proposed deal.

He acknowledged that work was needed to improve morale but claimed the BMA's actions over the contract dispute had made medics feel "devalued".

The Government has threatened to impose a new contract aimed at delivering the Tory commitment to a seven-day NHS if an agreement cannot be reached with the BMA.

Mr Hunt told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "What we will end up with is a contract that is better for patients but also better for doctors."

But confronted with quotes from junior doctors raising issues about low morale and potentially unsafe working conditions, Mr Hunt acknowledged there was anger within the workforce. 

"Quite outside the contract, we need to do a number of things to improve the morale of junior doctors. I think there is a lot we can do in respect of the training.

"But what I would say is one of the reasons for that anger  - and there is anger there - is because they were told by the BMA that their pay was going to be cut. It isn't.

"They were told that they were going to be asked to work longer hours. They aren't, we are actually bringing down the hours they work.

"And if you are told by your union that the Health Secretary wants to do these awful things, of course you feel devalued.

"Now the way to restore morale in the profession is to sit around the table, discuss what is the right thing to do for doctors and for patients and also to look at the bigger picture - which is record resources going in to the NHS, the sixth biggest increase in funding in one year in the history of nearly 70 years of the NHS, more doctors and nurses than ever, a total commitment by the Government to making the NHS the highest quality, safest healthcare anywhere in the world.

"There are always battles along the way but what history will ask is did the Health Secretary, did the Government that has committed in its manifesto to seven-day services, did they do the right things for patients to make care safer, better? If they did, in the end doctors too will say 'there was a big argument over it, but it was the right thing for the NHS'."

Mr Hunt said that his choice of language during the dispute had been "extremely careful" but claimed his words were often "distorted" by the BMA "which is one of the cleverest trade unions in the book because they know that in any argument  between doctors and politicians, the public are going to side with doctors".

He insisted that he was still prepared to negotiate over the deal: "The single issue that we are still at loggerheads on is this question of unsocial hours on Saturdays, I have said my door is open, I'm happy to do that.

"The BMA are saying they don't want to talk about that. What I am saying is rather than cancelling more operations, come and talk."

Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander wrote to Mr Hunt urging him to make an "explicit and significant public commitment to further concessions" over Saturday hours.

"If you are not willing to do this, a new contract should not be imposed," she said. "Such a decision on your part could lead to protracted industrial action and widespread anger among other NHS staff at a time when morale is already at rock bottom."