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UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt imposes contested contract reforms on junior doctors

The British government has said it will force through pay and working condition reforms for English doctors. Following a second consecutive day of strikes, junior doctors have vowed to fight on.

UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in parliament on Thursday that the government would have preferred a negotiated solution and accused the doctor's union, the British Medical Association (BMA), of being unwilling to compromise.

"In such a situation, any government must do what is right for both patients and doctors," Hunt said, adding that the decision to impose the changes on doctors was taken on the advice of senior health service officials.

Loss of pay

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Junior doctors stage strike in England

When implemented, the reforms would see several complex changes to junior doctor contracts. The most contested reform, however, concerns an extended working week and the consequential loss of earning. As the contract currently stands, junior doctors are paid "standard" time for shifts during regular working hours - Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Under Hunt's reforms, however, junior doctors would see "standard" extended from 60 hours per week to 90 and could see them working as late as 10 p.m. every night excluding Sunday. The protesting doctors argue that by without compensation for working anti-social hours, up to 30 percent of their salary is at stake.

BMA will continue to fight

Following Hunt's announcement on Thursday, the BMA, which has argued that the changes do not provide proper safeguards against doctors working dangerously long hours, responded to the announcement, saying it would "consider all options" to fight the reforms.

"Junior doctors cannot and will not accept a contract that is bad for the future of patient care, the profession, and the National Health Service (NHS) as a whole," said Johann Malawana the BMA's junior doctor committee chairman.

"If the government want more seven-day services then, quite simply, it needs more doctors, nurses and diagnostic staff, and the extra investment needed to deliver it."

Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander criticized the move, arguing that the "whole dispute could have been handled so differently."

"The health secretary's failure to listen to junior doctors, his deeply dubious misrepresentation of research about care at weekends and his desire to make these contract negotiations into a symbolic fight for delivery of seven-day services has led to a situation which has been unprecedented in my lifetime," Alexander said.

On social media, critics of Hunt's decision have voiced fears that the contract reforms mark the beginning of the end for Britain's NHS - the country's publicly-funded health service.

Widespread effect

The contract reforms will affect some 55,000 junior doctors in England, which represents a third of the country's medical force. The term "junior doctor" includes all medics from those who have just graduated from medical school to those with as much as a decade of experience behind them.

Hunt's announcement followed two consecutive days of strikes by junior doctors across England, which affected thousands of medical procedures.

The striking doctors have also garnered wide support online, both from the British public as well as famous faces including actor John Hurt and author J.K. Rowling. In London, actress Vanessa Redgrave and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood joined junior doctors on the picket line on Wednesday.

ksb/jil (AFP, Reuters)

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