'Militant' junior doctors holding country to ransom, says health minister

A government health minister has accused 'increasingly militant' junior doctors of holding the country to ransom after the BMA announced plans for an all-out strike next month.

Health minister Ben Gummer
Health minister Ben Gummer

The BMA announced an escalation of strike action yesterday, which will see all junior doctors including those covering emergency care, walk out for nine hours on two consecutive days in April. A further 48-hour strike will not affect emergency cover.

Health minister Ben Gummer told MPs in response to an emergency question that an ‘entirely disproportionate and highly irresponsible’ full walkout would be ‘unprecedented in the history of the National Health Service’. The actions would ‘inevitably' put patients in harm’s way, he said.

Mr Gummer said sections of the BMA, such as GPs, wanted to reach constructive agreements with government. But he added: 'It’s very sad that this once-respected trade union is being dragged to this position by the junior doctors committee.’

Junior doctor strikes

Many junior doctors, he added, would be ‘profoundly worried’ by the strike escalation called by the ‘increasingly militant’ JDC. 

Asked by Labour shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander what the government was doing to prevent the strike, the minister said the government ‘could not have done more in its efforts to avoid industrial action’.

The BMA had walked away from negotiations three times, Mr Gummer said. ‘Time and again the government has implored the BMA to return to talks. Time and again the government has extended deadlines. Time and again the government has listened and responded to government concerns, making agreed changes to the proposed contract,' he said.

He added that ‘the BMA has set itself against talks, refusing to negotiate on the few remaining points of contention even though they had previously promised to discuss them’. He accused the BMA of escalating strike action despite consistently refusing to negotiate on behalf of its members.

Video: GP trainee leader on escalating strike action

The minister's comments are in sharp contrast to those of BMA junior doctors committee chairman Dr Johann Malawana. Announcing the escalation in strike action on Wednesday, Dr Malawana said it was the government that had refused to negotiate, leaving junior doctors with no alternative to strikes.

'No junior doctor wants to take this action but the government has left us with no choice,' said the junior doctors committee chairman. 'In refusing to lift imposition and listen to junior doctors’ outstanding concerns, the government will bear direct responsibility for the first full walkout of doctors in this country.

'The government is refusing to get back around the table and is ploughing ahead with plans to impose a contract junior doctors have no confidence in and have roundly rejected. We want to end this dispute through talks but the government is making this impossible.'

But Mr Gummer told MPs today: ‘The country cannot be held to ransom like this. At some point a democratically elected government must be able to proceed to fulfill the promises it has made to the people. Governments cannot be held hostage by a union that refuses to negotiate.’

Imposed junior doctor contract

The minister said the imposed contract would be safer, fairer and better for patients and doctors than the current one. 

Ms Alexander, however, said it was a ‘disgrace’ that health secretary Jeremy Hunt had failed to attend the Commons for the emergency debate. Nobody wanted the strike to go ahead, she said, and urged the government to ‘think again’ after Mr Hunt reportedly said the matter was ‘closed’.

‘Think about how it would look to patients if the secretary of state spends the next four weeks sat on his hands instead of trying to avert this action,' she said.

Ms Alexander said the contract dispute was not about seven-day services, but about setting a precedent on lower Saturday premiums to reduce the overall NHS pay bill.

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