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Junior doctors ‘walked away before final offer’ – Health Secretary

The Health Secretary has expressed her “extreme disappointment” that junior doctors walked away from talks and said that a final offer had not been put before the British Medical Association (BMA) before more strikes were announced.

Victoria Atkins warned that the forthcoming strike by junior doctors in England comes at a “most challenging time” for the health service as she called on NHS staff to “explain the consequences” of the strikes to junior doctors.

Talks between the government and junior doctors from the BMA had been ongoing for five weeks before the union announced further strikes dates.

The BMA said earlier this month that a credible offer had not been put before junior doctors before a pre-arranged deadline.

It announced that junior doctors would walk out for three days in December – at 7am on December 20 to 7am on December 23 – and for six days from January 3 – the longest strike in NHS history.

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Health commentators expressed dismay at the news, highlighting that the strikes will take place during one of the busiest periods for the NHS.

When the talks broke down, the BMA said junior doctors had been offered a 3% rise on top of the average 8.8% increase they were given in the summer.

The union said the cash would be split unevenly across different doctor grades and would “still amount to pay cuts for many doctors”.

But Victoria Atkins said that the discussions were still live when the BMA called the strikes and the Government had not yet made a final offer.

Asked about the walkouts at her first appearance before the Health and Social Care Committee as Health Secretary, Ms Atkins said: “It has been, as far as I’m concerned, a constructive relationship.

“I am extremely disappointed that they have taken the decision to walk away from the discussions we were having – which were live and we had not in any way made a final offer or anything of that nature.

“And so it is disappointing, but as I’ve said since they announced their decision, should they call off the strike action I will get right back around the table with them.

“And I think as we approach next week’s strikes – but also the very, very significant strikes in January – sadly we will begin to see some of the impact that will have on patients, particularly over this period of time, which as everybody knows, is probably the most challenging time for the NHS.”

She added: “I’m taking the approach that it cannot just be me as the Secretary of State having this discussion in public with the junior doctors’ committee.

“We need professionals, clinicians, working in the system to speak whether privately or publicly with their junior doctor colleagues to explain the consequences of this.

“NHS England are beginning to set out some of the concerns they have and we will have to play it day by day to see the impact it is having at this time of year.

“I think everybody realises, particularly those strikes in January after the Christmas period, that (it) will be a very, very difficult time for the NHS even with a full contingent of workforce as we know seasonal factors such as flu and Covid-19 and so on will continue to take their toll on us all.

“But it is particularly worrying … I think NHS England is keen to say well look, although there is a break in the middle, the reality is, of course, the Christmas period being what it is, the impact should be seen as it will continue to have a tail after the three days next week into the following period before the January strikes start. It’s deeply, deeply concerning.”

Ms Atkins said she wanted to “immediately establish constructive relationships with everyone who works in NHS and social care” when she was put in post in November.

She added that she was “really pleased to reach a fair and reasonable agreement” with consultants in England.

Consultant doctors from the BMA reached a deal with the Government which will see consultants earn more money from January 2024, although it will not be paid until April 2024.

England’s top hospital doctors are now voting on the deal, which would see them get a pay rise of between 6% and 19.6%.

Meanwhile the minister told the committee that an “incredible amount of work” goes into preparing for strike action which “could be spent on the other issues facing our health system”.

Ms Atkins also said that strikes had impacted the record waiting list in the NHS in England.

“Since industrial action started in December last year, 1.1 million appointments have been rescheduled, in October alone 40,000 appointments were being rescheduled, and we have industrial action next week,” she said.

“When you remove our highly qualified, highly prized doctors and clinicians from the hospital setting, that has real life consequences for the patients that are waiting for those appointments.

“I am doing everything I can to cut waiting lists because I absolutely understand (that) people are in pain, they’re in distress but we do also have to be realistic about what the impact of industrial action can be.”

The minister said she “remains keen” to strike a deal with junior doctors but urged them to call off strikes, saying that “we cannot have the threat of strikes hanging over the system”.

Ms Atkins continued: “I’ve said to the doctors in training, call off their strike action. We have not given a final offer, they walked off and I am incredibly disappointed but I’ve said please, please come back around the table… in particular because I genuinely think they’ve got a point on some of these things that they’re worried about.”

Elsewhere in the Health and Social Committee hearing:

– Ms Atkins told the committee that she is “listening” to concerns about the pay review body process voiced by unions.

– She said the social care sector is “broadly relaxed” about changes which will see international care workers banned from bringing dependants when they come to the UK.

– The minister acknowledged that there are “concerns” about NHS dentistry but would not be drawn on when the Government would publish its dental recovery plan.

– Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care, defended the decision to move to a single major conditions strategy, over different strategies for certain conditions.

– Ms Atkins praised MP Dr Caroline Johnson for highlighting concerns over children accessing disposable vapes, saying: “Dr Johnson, you’ve done a great job in raising the concerns of pretty much every mum and dad and grandparent and carer watching this because we’re now having to deal not just with the risks of smoking and alcohol and drugs but also now vaping.”

– On delayed openings to new gender services for young people in England, Ms Atkins said NHS England is taking time to “transform” services and “get this right”, after one Tory MP on the committee accused the Government of dragging its feet on the issue.