Jeremy Hunt has condemned the junior doctors' union as "irresponsible" for "spreading misinformation" as its members prepare to go on strike this week for a second time over proposed contract changes.
The health secretary told Andrew Marr the British Medical Association was had "distorted" his words in the standoff over junior doctors' contracts he is trying to introduce to the NHS, prompting the BMA to hit back that his "shambolic mishandling" of negotiations had brought about the industrial action.
Junior doctors will walk out on Wednesday, following a strike in January over the the new contracts - the first of its kind in 40 years.
Jeremy Hunt said the BMA was 'one of the cleverest trade unions around'
Hunt told Marr the BMA was "one of the cleverest trade unions around" and as it "knew" the public would side with doctors over health secretaries.
Marr read out the words of doctors to Hunt. One of them said the health secretary's actions left her feeling "demoralised and cheap".
Another said: "The profession is at absolute breaking point. I see doctors in tears because they are so despairing over what the future holds. Jeremy Hunt has done this. He's driving away a whole generation of doctors."
Hunt answered: "It's incredibly disappointing, the totally irresponsible way the BMA has behaved in refusing to sit down and talk about how we can improve patient care and spreading misinformation."
He added: "One of the reasons for that anger is they were told by the BMA their pay was going to be cut, it isn't. They were told they were going to have to work longer hours, they aren't...
"If you're told by your union that the health secretary wants to do these awful things, of course you're going to feel devalued.
Junior doctors on strike in January
One of the main areas for disagreement is how doctors are paid for working unsociable hours, particularly on Saturdays.
The government has tried to claim an increase in deaths at weekends is due to lack of staff, which others have disputed, saying there is not the data to support this.
Hunt told Marr: "Health secretaries have these battles but what history judges in the end is, have you done the right thing for patients?"
Dr Johann Malawana, BMA junior doctor committee chair, said the strike had been "wholly avoidable" and was caused by Hunt's "shambolic mishandling" of the matter.
"[Hunt] risks alienating a generation of junior doctors and undermining the delivery of future patient care, which is why 98% of those junior doctors who voted, supported taking industrial action," he added.
“The BMA has been clear throughout this process that we want to reach a negotiated agreement – no doctor wants to take industrial action, and our door has always been open to talks.
"But the government is putting politics before reason, and their continued threat to impose a contract that junior doctors have roundly rejected leaves us with no option.
“Junior doctors already work around the clock, seven days a week and they do so under their existing contract.
"If the government want more seven-day services then, quite simply, they need more doctors, nurses and diagnostic staff, and the extra investment needed to deliver it."
After Hunt's comments, Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander wrote to him urging him not to impose the new contract
She said: "As you will appreciate from my comments in the House and to the media, I understand why a process to reform the junior doctors’ contract was initiated."However, your determination to conflate contract reform with your manifesto commitment for a seven-day NHS has resulted in a fundamental breakdown of trust."