Hundreds of Brighton and Hove patients have had the threat of cancelled operations and consultations lifted with news that junior doctors have put off the start date of their next strike.
The five-day strike national was due to start next Monday (12 September) with five-day strikes also scheduled for next month, November and December.
Earlier this year five separate one and two-day strikes were held by junior doctors – that is, all hospital doctors below the grade of consultant and not just trainees.
Consultants provided cover at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and elsewhere as doctors withdrew their labour for the first time in 40 years.
But health chiefs, patient groups and politicians criticised the short notice given by the British Medical Association (BMA) before the latest strike was due to start.
The dispute centres on a new contract for junior doctors, aimed at providing better services in hospitals at nights and weekends. The proposed contract redefined unsocial hours in a way that angered medics.
Having failed to agree the new contract in talks with the BMA, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he would impose it.
After the series of strikes, though, talks were held and a deal was agreed with doctors’ representatives. But when it was put to a vote of the wider membership last month, it was overwhelmingly rejected.
The new strike dates were announced five days ago, with the BMA giving more notice than required in law. Hospital bosses were concerned about the complexities of trying to arrange cover or deal with the number of cancellations and subsequent backlog.
Ellen McCourt, who chairs the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, said today (Monday 5 September): “Over the past few days we have been described as radical, we have been described as militant, we have been described as prioritising ourselves over our patient’s safety.
“This is not true. Patient safety remains doctors’ primary concern. For the first time in this dispute NHS England have told us that a service under such pressure cannot cope with the notice period for industrial action given.
“Our hospitals are chronically understaffed. Our NHS is desperately underfunded. We have to listen to our colleagues when they tell us that they need more time to keep patients safe.
“We have also listened to the concerns of working doctors, patient groups and the public. Thousands of you have been in touch.
“Your level of anger over the Secretary of State’s imposed contract remains high but at the same time you want to keep your patients safe during industrial action.
“The BMA is therefore suspending the industrial action planned for the week of (Monday) 12 September. The remaining programme of industrial action stays in place.
“This does not absolve the Secretary of State. He continues to ignore our request to stop the imposition.
“He continues to force upon junior doctors a contract that discriminates against carers, parents, doctors with disabilities and women a contract that devalues our time and a contract that disincentives careers in our most struggling specialties.
“He continues to strive towards an uncosted, unfunded, unstaffed extended seven-day service.
“He continues to disregard the concerns junior doctors have about staffing shortages and patient safety.
“Future action is, however, still avoidable. The BMA has repeatedly said that it will call off further action if the Secretary of State stops his imposition of the contract, listens to the concerns of junior doctors and works with us to negotiate a contract, based upon fresh agreed principles, that has the confidence of junior doctors.
“There are four weeks until October. The Secretary of State must use this time to listen and act.”
The next five-day strikes are due to start on Wednesday 5 October, Monday 14 November and Monday 5 December.
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