Jeremy Hunt has said NHS officials are "busting a gut" to ensure A&E departments remain open if junior doctors walk out on strike next month.
The health secretary said this morning he would still consider imposing the new contract on junior doctors as a "last resort" although would rather come to an agreement.
Discussions between the British Medical Association (BMA) and the government will continue in an effort to break the stalemate in the English junior doctors dispute.
Two further strikes are planned - a 48-hour stoppage and the provision of emergency care only from 8am on Tuesday January 26, and a full withdrawal of labour from 8am to 5pm on Wednesday February 10.
"I cannot give an absolute guarantee but we are busting a gut to make sure every A&E department is able to function. We are going through hospital by hospital, we are doing detailed work to see whether we can fill the shifts that are not going to be filled by junior doctors and obviously our absolute priority is to keep patients safe," he said.
Asked if he would force doctors to accept the new contract which is at the heart of the dispute, Hunt said: "Of course legally we can do that, but I would rather agree this contract because I think it's something we should all agree – that we can have this promise to NHS patients that they can be confident of the same high-quality care every day of the week...
"We have said that if we can't solve this problem we have to deliver our manifesto commitment, and as a last resort we would move to the new contract. But we really hope that doesn't happen."
Junior doctors staged a 24-hour walkout on Tuesday, leading to the cancellation of around 4,000 operations and thousands of appointments.
The disagreement centres on changes to medics' pay and working conditions and the basis for the current round of negotiations is the Government's offer from early November, including an 11% rise in basic pay.
But this is offset by plans to cut the number of hours on a weekend for which junior doctors can claim extra pay for unsocial hours.Suggest a correction