JEREMY Hunt is willing to “pause” the introduction of new contracts if junior doctors agree to talks.
Writing to the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Health Secretary said the Department of Health was committed to the August introduction of the contract, but was willing to hear what the doctors have to say.
Mr Hunt added that he expected the discussions to be based on the contractual issues outstanding since February, and not on revisiting the 90% of issues that were agreed, including the cost neutrality of the contract.
He wrote: “However, in response to your call for a five-day negotiating period to consider the process of introducing a new contract and suspension of the threat of further industrial action we are willing to play our part.
“We will pause introduction of the new contract for five days from Monday should the Junior Doctors’ Committee agree to return to talks.
“I have already made clear that we are happy to address with the BMA a range of non-contractual issues.”
However, Mr Hunt said that he would only agree to talks if the Junior Doctors’ Committee (JDC) was willing to negotiate on the issues of unsocial hours and Saturday pay.
In the letter to Professor Dame Sue Bailey, he continued: “Despite numerous concessions made by Sir David Dalton on this issue, they would not consider any move away from their initial position.
“In light of this I hope you can agree with our position that any talks should not proceed unless we have written agreement from the JDC that they will agree to negotiate substantively and in good faith on this single biggest outstanding area of disagreement and that they would ratify and recommend any negotiated agreement to their members.”
Commenting on the department’s response to the calls for a five-day pause, Mr Hunt added: “This is a significant show of good faith by the Government in order to break the deadlock.
“We now need the BMA to agree to negotiate on Saturday pay, the biggest area of difference between us, in order for the talks to proceed next week.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) responded that it is keen to “restart talks with an open mind” and has always wanted to negotiate an agreement.
Dr Johann Malawana, BMA junior doctors’ committee chairman, said: “As suggested by the Academy, we are keen to restart talks with an open mind.
“It is critical to find a way forward on all the outstanding issues - which are more than just pay - and hope that a new offer is made that can break the impasse.”
Tory Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Health Select Committee, warned that indefinite strikes would be “disastrous”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “The position we are in now, we are just being thrown potentially into a period of indefinite chaos that cannot be allowed to continue so both sides need to get round the table and settle their differences.”
Dr Wollaston said, had the issue been presented in a different way, “we might have been in a better place”.
Prime Minister David Cameron called for the proposed talks to focus on the issue of Saturday working.
“I welcome the fact that there is the prospect of discussions between the Department of Health and the junior doctors.
“I think it’s important that if these talks do go ahead, they focus not on the 90% of things that have been agreed, but focus very much on the 10% of things that haven’t been agreed, particularly the issue around Saturday working,” Mr Cameron said in Downing Street.