Yesterday, junior doctors began unprecedented strike action at the urging of their union, the British Medical Association, with emergency cover withdrawn from our hospitals for the first time in a dispute over pay.
Whilst the NHS is prepared and consultants will continue to provide cover, this will inevitably impact on patients. More than 150,000 operations and appointments have been cancelled as a result of this pay dispute.
We have many choices in life but one thing over which we have no control is the day of the week we get ill. This government made a commitment to delivering a safer, seven-day NHS. We want an NHS where if you need to see a consultant, have an urgent diagnostic test, or get the green light to be discharged from hospital, you can do so. Some have raised concerns that resources will be spread too thinly for a seven-day NHS. Let me address that directly: since 2010 we have increased the number of hospital nurses by 10,700 and doctors by 10,100. By 2020, the NHS will have 11,420 more doctors trained up, able to deliver seven-day services for patients.
Last month we announced the details of the new junior doctors' contract. This followed three years of talks, during which the BMA walked away twice and flat-out refused to negotiate on the issue of Saturday pay.
I know there is a lot of anger among many junior doctors. I understand why: juniors have many legitimate concerns about their current work and training routines and to be told - falsely- that they would suffer a 30% pay cut would anger any sensible person. But they have been misled and in any event this week's strike action is totally disproportionate.
Alongside the General Medical Council, NHS leaders such as Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the Medical Director of the NHS, and former Labour Minister Professor Ara Darzi have been clear that removing emergency cover puts patients at risk.
The Government has exhaustively pursued all options to try to reach a negotiated agreement with the BMA. We have held 75 meetings with union leaders, made over 73 compromises within a contract that was 90% agreed with the union. However, because of the BMA's refusal to discuss Saturday pay despite a promise to do so in November, we had no choice but to proceed with proposals that are a good deal for junior doctors and have been endorsed by NHS leaders.
The new contract is not a cost-cutting exercise. It will mean on average a 13.5% basic pay rise and means no junior doctor working within contracted hours - that's 99% of the workforce - will see a pay cut. Higher basic pay will also mean increased contributions to pensions and higher maternity pay.
The new contract will reduce the maximum number of hours doctors can work from 91 to 72 in any one week - supported by new safeguards to ensure a better work-life balance and a clear commitment to improve access to training and development. Pay increases will be based on successful progress through training and taking up a post at the next level of responsibility.
In short, this new contract is fairer for junior doctors, safer for patients and will help to create a fully seven-day NHS.
As many junior doctors consider joining the picket line again today, my message to them is simple: please be responsible and consider the impact your strike action will have on patients. They remain the most important consideration for us all.
Ben Gummer is Minister for Care Quality at the Department of Health, and Conservative MP for IpswichSuggest a correction