Health Secretary accuses union of ‘political militant stance’ in junior doctors dispute

·4-min read
Steve Barclay met the leaders of the union’s junior doctors committee last week, but the talks disintegrated in acrimony - Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Steve Barclay met the leaders of the union’s junior doctors committee last week, but the talks disintegrated in acrimony - Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The Health Secretary has accused the British Medical Association (BMA) of a “political militant stance” in talks to resolve the junior doctors dispute.

Junior doctors in England are set to walk out for four days after the Easter bank holiday weekend, with the BMA saying that no “credible” pay offer has been made.

Steve Barclay met the leaders of the union’s junior doctors committee last week, but the talks disintegrated in acrimony almost immediately.

The BMA is seeking a 35 per cent pay rise for junior doctors, with Mr Barclay accusing it of insisting that such an increase was a “pre-condition of the talks”. The union disputed this, describing it as the starting point.

After talks broke down, the union announced a 96-hour strike starting on April 11 – the longest walkout yet. Healthcare leaders warned that the timing and duration after a four-day bank holiday posed particular dangers, with health service pressures will already be “piled up”.

Asking an urgent question in the Commons, Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said senior doctors were worried that patients would die as a result of the strikes, asking: “When is the Health Secretary going to get junior doctors back in for talks, take them seriously and stop these catastrophic strikes from wreaking havoc on patient care?”

Mr Barclay said the Government stands “ready to work constructively” with the BMA, but added: “They have chosen to take a more political militant stance, in contrast to the approach that other trade unions have pursued”.

Mr Streeting asked him to clarify whether union calls for a 35 per cent pay rise were a pre-condition, as he had claimed, or a “starting point”, as the union did.

The Health Secretary said: “I have checked the minutes, I have spoken with officials to confirm before I made this statement to the House and it was a precondition of the talks that we were told in terms of the pay erosion at 26.1 per cent, and that that needed to be restored at 35 per cent alongside other things.”

Mr Barclay later drew a distinction between “a militant group which seems to have taken over the junior doctors committee” and most junior doctors.

Announcing the latest strikes, Dr Vivek Trivedi and Dr Robert Laurenson, who co-chair the BMA junior doctor committee, last week said: “The Government has dragged its feet at every opportunity. It has not presented any credible offer and is refusing to accept that there is any case for pay restoration, describing our central ask as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unreasonable’”.

In a podcast in December, Dr Laurenson said there had been a “tremendous shift” in the BMA recently and he wanted to see it “structured towards more union activity”, with doctors “prepared to organise in the long term to fight a plethora of issues”.

Mr Barclay said the impact of the upcoming strikes would be “far greater” than previous industrial action, adding: “We know that, during the previous walkout by junior doctors earlier this month, 181,000 appointments had to be rescheduled.

“With this four-day walkout, the disruption and the risk will be far greater. Not only because it lasts longer, but because it coincides with extended public holidays and Ramadan, with knock-on effects on services before and after the strike action itself, and because a significant proportion will already be on planned absence due to the holiday period.”

Prof Philip Banfield, the BMA chairman of council, said: “It is a great shame that the Secretary of State is spending more time quibbling about how we are calling for pay restoration for junior doctors in England than he is actually getting round the table and negotiating with us.

“We have been clear in all our communications with his office that our ask is to achieve full pay restoration for junior doctors in order to reverse the real-terms pay cuts we have suffered since 2008.

“We have not laid down any pre-conditions to beginning pay negotiations, and in particular we have not suggested that a 35 per cent uplift in pay is a precondition to talks with the Health Secretary.

“We remain committed to beginning talks to engage in meaningful discussions about pay restoration, and will do so in the run-up to and during strike action. The ball is firmly in Steve Barclay’s court.”