Jeremy Hunt demands doctors return to a negotiating table he hasn’t sat at for 2 years

Martin Odoni

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has taken very little time to respond to Tuesday’s strike by junior doctors. By Tuesday evening, he had given a characteristically two-faced interview to the BBC, in which he recited all the usual Conservative platitudes about how strikes are unfair and dangerous to the public and demanded that the doctors should return to the negotiating table:

The right thing to do is to talk, not to do what we’ve seen today, which is to put patients at risk.

The clue to what Hunt is being such a hypocrite about can be found earlier in the same interview, however, when he says:

We’ve been arguing this with the BMA [British Medical Association] now for over three years

That is, of course, correct. Three years. During which time, Hunt has refused to give any real ground on the subject of the new contract he wishes to impose on junior doctors. This has two implications:

  1. It is plainly not the right thing merely to go back to the negotiating table, as talks never lead to any headway. A withdrawal of labour is merely the next alternative.
  2. Hunt is rebuking the BMA for behaving much as he has since 2014, when talks initially broke down. The summer declaration that the new contract would be imposed nearly triggered the strike before Christmas, which the doctors graciously called off when talks resumed at the end of November, only for those to break down as well. Talks are not getting anywhere, because Hunt keeps refusing to give ground. He does not sit at a negotiating table, he sits at a talking table, where he talks at the BMA and tries to force NHS staff to his will. NHS staff are now trying to strong-arm him back, and he is complaining.

During the interview, Hunt reiterated his long-running assertion that death rates among NHS patients are higher at weekends – a claim that has been debunked as dangerously misleading on more than one occasion. The nonsense about developing a “7-day NHS” – as if we did not already have one – will not make anyone safer. On the contrary. When Hunt accuses the doctors of endangering patients, he is talking about what happens on a couple of days when they go on strike, whereas his whole program of planned reforms will endanger patients more fundamentally, and on a far more permanent basis. The overstretch of medical staff and resources during the service expansions he has in mind will inevitably deteriorate the quality of care (unless investment is massively increased, which the government is unwilling to make happen).

All the attempts to make industrial action look unreasonable are standard fare from the Tories, of course. But in this case, it is not just a misdirection ploy; the miser is calling the beggar “greedy”.


Featured image via Birmingham Eastside on Flickr.

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