Hunt may not `impose’ doctors’ contract

Jeremy Hunt

Health Secretary’s U-turn as he claims he no longer has the right to impose new terms, writes Asian Lite.

Jeremy hunt last night was accused of backtracking over plans to impose a controversial contract on junior doctors. His threat to force the deal on medics has already prompted four strikes and a fifth is planned for next week involving a total withdrawal of care.

But the health secretary was accused of doing a u-turn and is no longer claiming he has the right to impose the contract. However, the department of health strongly denied this was the case and insisted the contract would be imposed as planned.

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt

Using far softer language, Mr. Hunt says he is merely introducing the changes – and ex-ministers now say the whole proposals are ‘dead in the water’. The Health Secretary denies any ‘change of approach’. The contract was aimed at making junior doctors work more weekend shifts for lower rates of pay, particularly on Saturdays.

Despite months of negotiation, the British Medical Association union has refused to accept the terms and last month the Health Secretary pressed ahead and confirmed he would impose it regardless. But legal letters obtained by The Guardian suggest he is trying to re-write history by watering down his previous threats.

Solicitors representing Mr. Hunt has stated that he will ‘proceed with the introduction of a new contract’ and that he is legally entitled to do so under the NHS Act 2006. However, the papers do not mention the word ‘imposition’ at any point or cite any of Mr. Hunt’s repeated uses of the word in the Commons or in public over the past few weeks.

Labour said the Government’s position was now ‘in complete disarray’. Labour’s health spokesman Heidi Alexander is reported to have said that government lawyers appear to be trying to rewrite history in an attempt to get Jeremy Hunt out of what could be a very significant legal problem.

Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat health minister under Mr. Hunt until last May, was quoted as saying, “It appears that this is now in a state of shambles and that the secretary of state is in a hole and can’t move forward on this. The Government’s latest legal position seems to show that Jeremy Hunt had no power to impose [the contract] all along.”

Mr. Lamb, who was an employment lawyer before becoming MP added that it was quite a dramatic change from the assumption that people have had that the Health Secretary was able to force junior doctors to abide by this contract. He believed that if the language has been changed from `imposing’ to `introducing’, there was no way Government can continue to try to get this contract implemented.

The four ‘emergency care only’ strikes since January have led to the cancellation of nearly 25,000 operations and some patients have been waiting months for a new slot. But on Monday and Tuesday next week junior doctors are planning a total withdrawal of care in which they would even refuse to treat emergency patients.

The revelations could mean Mr. Hunt is accused of misleading Parliament, by repeatedly claiming he has the legal right to impose the new contract. They are outlined in a five-page letter sent last Friday by government lawyers to Bindmans, the solicitors acting for a company called Justice for Health, formed by five junior doctors.

They are going to the High Court today to seek a judicial review over whether Mr. Hunt could lawfully impose the new contract. Mr. Hunt said on Twitter last night that there was ‘no change of approach’ and that a ‘new contract will be introduced’ for junior doctors from August.