Confusion over junior doctor contract ‘imposition’ as Jeremy Hunt claims ‘no change of approach’
Jeremy Hunt has insisted there has been “no change of approach” to bringing in new contracts for junior doctors despite appearing to abandon a threat to impose the new terms of employment.
A letter seen by the Guardian suggested the Health Secretary was “introducing” as opposed to imposing the new contracts, as he told MPs earlier this year.
A High Court challenge against the unprecedented decision to impose the new contracts begins today following a period of strike action by junior medics.
The letter was from government solicitors to Bindmans, the lawyers acting on behalf of Justice for Health who have launched the challenge in the High Court.
They state that Mr Hunt has decided to “proceed with the introduction of a new contract”.
The solicitors argue he is entitled to do so under the NHS Act 2006, but at no point does the correspondence claim that the Health Secretary is imposing the new terms of employment.
Referring to the legal challenge mounted by Justice for Health, formed of five junior doctors, the solicitors say the lawsuit is “simply misconceived”.
A Department of Health spokeswoman used the same rhetoric in a statement to the Guardian: “New terms are being introduced for junior doctors as their current contract expires – because agreement could not be reached with the BMA. The Secretary of State decided the contract should be introduced based on advice from David Dalton [chief executive of Salford Royal Foundation Trust]."
But Mr Hunt was quick off the blocks to dismiss the Guardian’s story as “completely wrong”.
The Cabinet minister tweeted:
However, Labour seized on the letter as evidence the Government’s approach to the long-running dispute with the British Medical Association is in “complete disarray”.
“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,” said Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander.
“The reason why this is so significant is that junior doctors have entered into a period of unprecedented industrial action off the back of his decision to impose the contract. If Jeremy Hunt is now claiming he isn’t imposing the contract, then this also raises the prospect that he has misled parliament.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb was also highly critical of Mr Hunt: “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.
“This is quite a dramatic change from the assumption that people have had that the health secretary is able to force junior doctors to abide by this contract. If he’s changed the language from ‘imposing’ to ‘introducing’, it may be that there’s no way the government can continue to try to get this contract implemented. It looks like the contract is dead in the water, that it has no life in it, like the dead parrot in Monty Python,”
The BMA announced last month a full withdrawal of labour without emergency care from junior doctors will take place from 08:00 to 17:00 on 26 and 27 April.
Announcing the imposition of the contracts in February, Mr Hunt acknowledged the dispute had been met with “considerable dismay” by many in the profession, but insisted the proposals would improve doctors' pay and conditions.
Basic pay will rise by more than previously offered – by 13.5% instead of 11% – as part of the changes, but fewer hours will be eligible for overtime pay.
The two sides were unable to agree on whether Saturday hours should be eligible for extra pay.