Exclusive: Junior doctor row could deepen GP crisis, says shadow health secretary

Government plans to impose a new contract on junior doctors could exacerbate the GP recruitment crisis, the shadow health secretary has warned.

Speaking exclusively to GPonline, Heidi Alexander said the contract dispute could lead to a ‘mass exodus’ of trainees and reduce the pool from which GPs are recruited.

General practice was in a ‘real state of crisis’, said Ms Alexander. 'We know that applications to become GPs are dropping. I don't think that the junior doctors dispute is helping with any of this, of course. If we face the mass exodus of junior doctors to other countries, that reduces the pool from which GPs are ultimately drawn.'

The south London MP, who was appointed to lead Labour’s shadow health team by Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015, warned that health secretary Jeremy Hunt would ‘probably come to regret some of the decisions he has taken’ over the dispute, and called on him to get back to the negotiating table.

Read more: Heidi Alexander interview in full

Ms Alexander, who as a backbencher helped lead the successful campaign against Mr Hunt’s plans to downgrade Lewisham Hospital’s A&E department, said she was concerned the health secretary was imposing the new junior doctor contract to set a precedent for other NHS staff and reduce the overall NHS pay bill.

‘If you can reduce the amount of the weekend to which a premium pay rate applies in the junior doctors contract, then the question is what other contracts can you change,' she said. ‘I think a lot of NHS staff ... are quite fearful about this.’

Ms Alexander, who has clashed regularly with Mr Hunt in the Commons over the contract dispute in recent months, defended her record of supporting their cause. The shadow cabinet has come in for criticism from some strike supporters, including Labour members, for stopping short of explicitly backing the BMA action which began in January.

Media reports during the first 24-hour strike claimed the shadow cabinet had agreed with Ms Alexander that the party, while sympathetic to the cause, would not support industrial action.

NHS funding

Ms Alexander told GPonline junior doctors around the country were ‘clear about the support’ she had given them. ‘Whether in parliament, dragging the health secretary to the House of Commons to answer questions, on the television interviews I have given, I have consistently said that the way these negotiations have been handled has been absolutely appalling. And I think Jeremy Hunt will probably come to regret some of the decisions he has taken. I'm clear in my support for the cause that the junior doctors are fighting for,' she said.

But the shadow health secretary did not explicitly back the strike action. ‘Nobody wants to strike,' she said. 'Least of all those junior doctors. I support the cause the junior doctors are fighting for which is a contract which is fair for junior doctors and safe for patients.

‘This has got to be about what Jeremy Hunt will do now. He has got to get back to that negotiating table because a prolonged period of industrial action is no good for anyone.’

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