Junior doctors are key to NHS but their contract needs to be amended

Morning View
Morning View

There are few professions where apprentices are more highly trained than in medicine.

They have to be intelligent, they have to prove that they have learned and remembered huge amounts of detail about the human body and medications, and increasingly they are expected to display good patient skills.

Doctors complete a five-year degree (six if they do not have the sciences at A Level), then spend a year as a junior house officer, followed by further years as a senior house officer.

The medical profession is at the heart of a health service that is treasured by the nation.

Doctors are rightly therefore among the best paid professions. This must always be the case.

But now junior practitioners are promising to continue their fight with Britain’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt after he said he will impose a new contract on thousands of medics in England. The British Medical Association (BMA) has not ruled out further strikes in the battle over pay and conditions.

The government is proposing an increase in basic pay in return for Saturday to become part of the basic working week (formerly it got anti social payments).

The BMA does accept that the planned 11-13% rise in basic pay will have to be cut if it is to get the premium rates that it wants for Saturdays. But Mr Hunt is fundamentally right in his aims.

Death rates rise at weekends because medical coverage is less extensive. The convenience of staffing has taken precedence over what is best for the health of the nation.

Mr Hunt’s provisions include premium pay for doctors who work one in four Saturdays or more.

That is a sensible compromise. It means that weekend work will be relatively infrequent (at most one in five Saturdays) alongside a rise in overall pay. The BMA is treating this as if it is a huge new burden on doctors, when it is not so.

Stormont’s health minister Simon Hamilton has been too fast to rule out the same arrangement in Northern Ireland.