THE BLOG
25/09/2015 10:29 BST | Updated 25/09/2016 06:12 BST

Jeremy Hunt Trying to 'Take on' Junior Doctors Is Precisely the Wrong Approach

Jeremy Hunt needs to withdraw the threat of contract imposition, and re-engage in a dialogue with the BMA. He must give an assurance to the BMA that talks will be meaningful, that he is prepared to compromise and that he will put forward a better deal that won't put patients at risk. Now is not the time for high-handed demands which are neither fair nor safe.

Once I got past the initial flurry of emails congratulating me on my new job as shadow health secretary, it was clear from looking at my inbox that one issue is set to dominate political debate over the coming months.

The ongoing dispute with the junior doctor contract could have serious implications for the future of the NHS.

Ensuring that our health service is there for everyone, whenever they might need it - be that a weekday or a weekend - is something that everyone would support.

But if we want the NHS to be sustainable for years to come, and if we are serious about moving towards a seven-day service, we must make sure the staff that will be delivering that service are supported and feel valued.

Jeremy Hunt's approach of trying to 'take on' junior doctors is precisely the wrong approach. It also makes a mockery of the Conservative's somewhat Orwellian claim to be the party of workers. Junior doctors are the best of British. They have spent years studying, training, often accumulating huge personal debt, because they want to make a difference and help those in need.

With morale at rock-bottom, the NHS is already in the midst of a workforce crisis. There is a shortage of GPs and cuts to nurse training commissions have led to a reliance on expensive agency staff.

But now the crisis could get even worse. Yesterday, Royal Colleges issued a serious warning that the new junior doctor contract put forward by the Government is an immediate and real threat to the recruitment and retention of staff.

The BMA argue that the contract removes the vital safeguards that protect doctors from working dangerously long hours, and it discriminates against women if they take maternity leave. The current proposals, if implemented, risk a return to the "bad old days" of over-worked junior doctors, compromising safety and the lives of patients.

I don't see how it can possibly be justifiable to ask hard-working NHS staff to do more and get paid less.

We have a duty to care for those who care for us. It's not just about doing right for NHS staff - improving morale in the NHS is essential if we are to improve patient care and patient experience.

It's welcome that NHS Employers are planning consultation meetings with junior doctors, and it is right that the BMA is encouraging junior doctors to attend these events. But ultimately we will only resolve this dispute when both sides get back around the table.

Jeremy Hunt needs to withdraw the threat of contract imposition, and re-engage in a dialogue with the BMA. He must give an assurance to the BMA that talks will be meaningful, that he is prepared to compromise and that he will put forward a better deal that won't put patients at risk. Now is not the time for high-handed demands which are neither fair nor safe.

If Jeremy Hunt can give those assurances, I hope the BMA re-engages in contract negotiations.

Nobody wants to see industrial action, and nobody wants to see the Government impose a contract that will see a return to the days of burnt out doctors; if that happens, staff suffer but so do patients.

Heidi Alexander is the Labour MP for Lewisham and shadow health secretary