Junior doctors from across the country will gather in London this weekend for the BMA's annual junior doctor conference. They meet at an unprecedented time in the history of the NHS when the challenges facing this great institution have never been more acute. The NHS is, in many ways, a victim of its own success. People are living longer, advances in medicine mean that illnesses which were once considered a death sentence can, thankfully, now be treated and managed. The result is a rising and aging population with greater healthcare needs, and a health service that is desperately struggling to keep up. This is compounded by an enormous funding gap - £22bn - and worrying shortage of staff in many GP surgeries and hospitals wards across the country. On almost every front, the NHS is being asked to deliver more, with less. Less money, fewer staff, more patients. You don't need to be a genius to work out this isn't sustainable and that something has got to give.
This is the backdrop for what has been a difficult and fraught dispute between junior doctors and the government on proposals for a new contract. Junior doctors have finally reached a tipping point. Their message to the government throughout this year has been clear: you can only stretch us so far before we break. Since January, tens of thousands of junior doctors have taken to picket lines across England. We have seen the first full walk-out of doctors in the NHS. Junior doctors have agonised over the choice between disrupting patients and protecting future patient care. We are part of a history we didn't wanted to make, but never before has the profession united with such solidarity and passion. Why? Because desperate times call for desperate measures and for the sake our patients as much as ourselves, this contract is too important to get wrong.
The contract determines how safely and sustainably junior doctors work. It determines obvious things like pay and working hours, and also less obvious but no less important things such as the quality of doctors' working lives and the quality of their training. I would not want my family to be treated by an exhausted doctor, and nor would I want them treated by one who feels devalued and demotivated. Doctors' training can last up to a decade after medical school - a significant chunk of a doctor's working life. They remain under the junior doctor contract for that time, so changes to their contact have a lasting impact.
It's worrying, if not surprising, that such a high number of junior doctors - almost one in three - have considered leaving the profession. To lose a large swath of doctors at the beginning of their career would be a disaster for the NHS. This is why the BMA has fought so vigorously to agree a contract that will deliver for patients as well as junior doctors not just today, but tomorrow and into the future.
Talks began again last week and will continue into next week, and any offer that emerges will be put to a vote of junior doctors. I believe there is a genuine willingness on both sides to reach a negotiated end to this dispute. The principle underpinning the BMA's position during talks has been to agree a safe and fair contract, one that does not discriminate against any group. One that ensures we can recruit and retain the doctors needed to meet rising demand and ensure the NHS can continue to deliver a world class service. We fully support patients having access to the best possible care, seven-day a week and we already work around the clock to provide this. Despite what some have said, we are not the enemy of government. Doctors in this country will work with all political parties and government to improve the working lives of frontline NHS staff and in so doing improve the care that patients receive. A motivated, valued workforce is vital for the NHS and we will do our part with government to achieve that goal.
Junior doctors over the last nine months have proven that the future leaders of the NHS are an articulate, brave and principled bunch. We will fight with every last breath for an NHS that our whole society can be proud of. Since the public has given us such incredible support, we want to repay that support by putting everything into this process to ensure we have an NHS that truly catches them when they need it most. This weekend junior doctors will no doubt reflect on the events of recent months, but we will also look forward in the hope that this dispute can be resolved. My focus in the coming days will be to work constructively in talks to deliver a contract is good for patients, doctors and the NHS and to do what junior doctors have wanted to do from the outset; end this dispute through a negotiated settlement. Junior doctors have absolutely no interest in political victories, we want there to be less politics in the NHS, not more, and we want to refocus a generation of doctors on the important work ahead, to deliver an NHS we all can be proud of.