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NHS dispute leaves bitter divide

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National Health Service trusts across England have begun phasing in a controversial employment contract for junior doctors in the latest setback for medical staff protesting the deal.

Less than a week after the British Medical Association’s junior doctor committee abandoned plans for a series of five-day strikes, NHS employers began signing up staff to a single national contract to cover all 54,000 doctors below consultant level employed by the NHS.

The move came after a last-ditch bid to have the actions of British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in pushing forward the contract declared illegal failed.

Picture credit: William Perugini / Shutterstock.com

Late last month a judicial review threw out claims by the group Justice for Health that Mr Hunt had acted beyond his powers by seeking to impose the contract despite its overwhelming rejection by junior doctors.

Within days, the BMA dumped plans for a rolling series of stoppages, but junior doctor committee chair Dr Ellen McCourt vowed that the fight was not over.

Dr McCourt said the BMA had not accepted the contract and was considering a range of options to force changes to address outstanding concerns.

The dispute flared last year when Mr Hunt announced plans to introduce a single national contract for NHS junior doctors that included a controversial clause for round-the-clock seven-day roster without any additional compensation.

The contract was overwhelmingly rejected by junior doctors in a vote late last year, which they followed up with an unprecedented series of strikes in the first half of 2016.

Following negotiations, a compromise deal that had the backing of the BMA leadership was also rejected by the junior doctors, and Mr Hunt declared an end to talks, instead moving to impose the contract.

But, even though the threat of five-day strikes has receded, the dispute has created enormous ill-will, according to Dr McCourt.

“Morale among junior doctors is at an all-time low,” she told The Guardian. “[There is] a deep sense of anger and mistrust that has built up towards the Government over the last year.”

There are concerns the dispute will speed the exodus of younger doctors from the UK.

A survey of 420 doctors who have studied medicine in the past decade found 42 per cent intended to practise overseas, saying their current experience as a doctor was worse than they expected when they graduated. A further 16 per cent reported they had “taken a break” from medicine.

Dr McCourt told the Daily Express the findings were unsurprising.

“We have been saying for some time that morale amongst doctors is at an all-time low and these figures show, once again, that doctors are on a knife edge,” she said. “They are reaching their limit, and if stretched any further, they will walk. Given the results of this study, it makes no sense for the Government to rush the implementation of the junior doctor contract, which will only make things worse.”

The threat of an exodus of locally-trained doctors has been compounded by the prospect that Britain will find it harder to attract foreign doctors following the Brexit vote.

Mr Hunt has announced plans to add 1500 medical school places a year in an effort to make the NHS in England “self-sufficient” in doctors after Britain leaves the European Union.

Adrian Rollins