Comment: The government’s catastrophic mishandling of the junior doctors saga has put patients at risk

By Norman Lamb

Hopes that the new year could bring an end to the unsavoury dispute between the government and junior doctors have been dashed after talks have once again failed to reach a resolution. The lack of genuine negotiation and the threat to impose a new contract has left junior doctors understandably angry and disillusioned, and it is shocking that the situation has again been allowed to escalate to the point of industrial action.

Junior doctors, along with nurses and other core staff, provide the bedrock of our NHS. I have been fortunate to witness first-hand their passion, sense of vocation, and dedication to providing the best possible patient care in what are often very stressful conditions. But morale is now at an all-time low as a result of the government's belligerent approach to reform of the junior doctors' contract.

The grievances of junior doctors are not motivated by greed. The proposed new contract fails to properly recognise the value of evening and weekend work, and does not provide safeguards against unsafe working hours. Jeremy Hunt's most recent concessions appear to be little more than window dressing that don't go far enough to address legitimate concerns.

Ultimately it's patients who will suffer from the current impasse. Thousands of people up and down the country will be hit by cancelled operations and hospital appointments, while emergency care will also be affected by the planned walk-out in February. This is completely unacceptable. It would be a scandal if patients in need of medical treatment were made to pay the price for the government's inability to draw the saga to a close.

The government has set a course which gives every impression of it lurching from one set of last-ditch crisis talks to another to delay strike action. The dispute must now be settled without any further delay but this will only happen if Hunt drops all preconditions and engages in a genuine dialogue with the BMA.

There is also a wider issue at hand. Underlying the dispute is the existential crisis facing the NHS and the savings the Tories are hoping to achieve through contract reform will not even scratch the surface of the challenge ahead.

The last five years have seen the toughest financial settlement in the history of the NHS, and UK health funding, as a share of national income, has lagged behind the rest of Europe for many decades. Although the government has committed to find £8bn to keep the system going until 2020, few experts believe that will be enough.

I have repeatedly urged the government to establish a national commission to examine the future of the NHS health and social care services, and have been joined in this call by NHS Survival – a group of 8,000 healthcare professionals, patients and members of the public committed to ensuring the survival of the health service. The group includes many forward-looking junior doctors who understand the pressures facing the system.

Time is running out to confront this mounting crisis, and it is essential that parties from across the political spectrum work together to get this right. But before this can happen the government must resolve the dispute with junior doctors. The consequences of failing to do so will be severe.

Norman Lamb is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk and a former health minister.

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