Jeremy Hunt letter shows weekday hospital care is under threat

Norman Lamb has accused the Government of putting the safety of weekday patient care at risk, after the Health Secretary failed to guarantee that more junior doctors will be hired to help deliver a seven-day NHS.

Throughout the year-long dispute over the junior doctors’ contract, Norman has expressed concern that Jeremy Hunt’s plan to make junior doctors work more at weekends will mean that hospitals have fewer medics on duty during the week, unless the NHS employs enough new junior doctors to fill the gap.

In the House of Commons on 5th September, the Health Secretary promised to write to Norman to confirm exactly how many additional doctors will be working in the NHS this year and every other year before the end of this parliament in 2020.  However, Hunt’s letter did not provide any detail on how many extra junior doctors would be trained and employed, despite having told Norman that he would give him a number.

In the letter, the Health Secretary said that it was up to each hospital trust to expand their junior doctor workforce, raising doubt that he would make good on his pledge to ensure that enough doctors are employed to protect weekday cover.  The letter simply restated the government’s longstanding pledge that there would be 11,500 more doctors by 2020 than there were in 2015.

The Health Secretary has previously acknowledged the potential for too few doctors being on duty between Monday and Friday as a result of the new junior doctors’ contract, which was imposed in October.  When Norman first raised the prospect of shortfalls in weekday medical rotas affecting care standards, in a Commons debate on the dispute on 19th May 2016, the Health Secretary told him: "The short answer is that we need to increase the NHS workforce."

Speaking to The Guardian, Norman Lamb said:

“This letter from Jeremy Hunt fails to reassure me.  There appears to be no clear plan as to when more junior doctors will be employed, and yet the changes to the contract are being imposed immediately.

“There seems to have been no assessment of the number of additional junior doctors needed to ensure that additional weekend hours won’t have a dangerous effect on weekday cover. Jeremy Hunt has failed to provide the evidence to back up his claim that the problem will be addressed by additional junior doctors.

“My fear is that unless you can guarantee that there will be more junior doctors employed, imposing a change which involves more hours being worked at weekends will inevitably reduce the numbers of hours worked during weekdays when the pressure is at its greatest. 

"This could result in real safety concerns. With many rotas already left unfilled around the country during the week, the Government risks making the situation worse by stretching NHS resources too far. The consequences for patient care could be disastrous." 

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