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Doctors vote to strike in challenge to U.K. health secretary

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(Bloomberg) — Junior hospital doctors in the state-run National Health Service in England voted to strike over government plans to impose a new contract that will change the way they’re paid, reducing compensation for weekend working.

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The doctors’ labor union, the British Medical Association, polled more than 37,000 junior medics and 98 percent backed strike action, the organization said on its website Thursday. Only 564 opposed the strike. Doctors will provide emergency care only for 24 hours starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1, and will then stage two full-scale nine-hour strikes on Dec. 8 and Dec. 16. The BMA says the government proposal will remove safeguards on doctors’ hours, risking patients’ lives.

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The move is a direct challenge to U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who sent a letter to junior doctors earlier this month saying that no one will have their pay cut and three-quarters of them will see their compensation increased. The new contracts, due to start coming into force next year, provide for an 11 percent increase in basic pay. Hunt says the contract will also shorten the working week. The government has made improving health services at weekends one of its priorities for the NHS.

‘Inevitable disruption’

“We regret the inevitable disruption that this will cause, but it is the government’s adamant insistence on imposing a contract that is unsafe for patients in the future, and unfair for doctors now and in the future, that has brought us to this point,” Mark Porter, the chair of the BMA Council, said in a statement. “It is still possible to get back around the negotiating table to deliver a contract that is safe for patients, contains the necessary contractual safeguards to prevent junior doctors being overworked and properly recognizes evening and weekend work.”

The medical director of the NHS in England, Bruce Keogh, wrote to Porter expressing concerns about junior doctors’ preparedness to respond if there were a terrorist attack during the strike.

“In light of the tragic events in Paris last Friday night, and the ongoing threat level in the U.K., we need to ensure we have a clear understanding of arrangements should a major incident be declared,” Keogh said in the letter published on the NHS website. “Will the BMA ensure that members will be available to respond to a major incident, whether this is declared because of a sudden single event or an unprecedented surge in activity?”

Solution needed

“It’s regrettable that the BMA have decided to go ahead with this action and put patient safety at risk,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London. “We want to sit around the table and negotiate, we want to find a way through on this.”

Hunt “needs to take responsibility for the fact that this is the first time in 40 years that junior doctors have voted to take such significant industrial action,” the opposition Labour Party’s health spokeswoman, Heidi Alexander, said in an e-mailed statement. “I have written to the prime minister suggesting that an independent mediator is brought in to break the current standoff. If he dismisses this suggestion, he will be risking patient safety in both the short and long term.”

Junior doctors — medical-school graduates who are training to be consultants or family doctors — earn an average of 30,000 pounds ($46,000) a year, with a starting salary of 23,000 pounds, according to the BMA. That compares with median earnings of 27,600 pounds across the economy.

—With assistance from Thomas Penny.


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