Diane Abbott clashes with Jeremy Hunt on the junoir doctors’ strike

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Secretary of State for Health 6:36 pm, 5th September 2016

The prospect of a rolling five-day strike by junior doctors was one of the utmost gravity. The junior doctors have suspended next week’s action, which is a step I believe the whole House welcomes, but the remaining programme of industrial action stays in place. If it eventually goes ahead, it will be the first such strike by junior doctors in the entire history of the national health service.

What the current situation shows is that there has been a complete breakdown in trust between junior doctors and the Government. The morale of junior doctors could not be lower, and that is not something for the Secretary of Stateto dismiss. But somehow the Secretary of State continues to take no responsibility for the current state of affairs—no responsibility for repeatedly arguing that the only problem was that doctors had “not read the contract”, no responsibility for the misleading use of statistics by claiming that thousands of patients were dying because of poor weekend care.

The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Neena Modi, said:

“despite concerns raised by senior officials, Jeremy Hunt persisted in using dubious evidence about the so-called ‘weekend effect’
to impose a damaging Junior Doctor contract under the bogus guise of patient safety”.

The Secretary of State still insists that the contract is about a seven-day NHS when we know now that his own officials were telling him that the NHS had too few staff and too little money to deliver what he was talking about.

But the Secretary of State well knows that the public simply do not believe him in his attempt to demonise the junior doctors. Try as he might, he has failed to convince the public that somehow junior doctors are the “enemy within” or mere dupes of the BMA. Far from being manipulated, doctors voted emphatically against the new contract.

Everyone in this House will remember the 7/7 bombings and the No. 30 bus which exploded in Tavistock Square, a few yards from the headquarters of theBritish Medical Association. Everyone will remember the pictures of doctors, who had been in meetings and their offices, pouring out of the BMA building, heading for the 14 dead people and the 110 victims, without flinching or faltering, fulfilling their vocation of saving lives. These are the people that the Secretary of State seeks to vilify.

Today we know that the junior doctors—who, contrary to what the Secretary of State implied, have always made patient safety a top priority—have cancelled the action planned for next Monday, but if we are going to remove the threat of industrial action, there are questions that the Secretary of State has to answer. There are widespread reports of deficits and financial crises, so how can the NHS move to enhanced seven-day week working, even with the proposed £10 billion the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement, when there are not the resources to maintain the status quo?

I welcome the structural work going on outside the contract on issues such as work-life balance, the gender pay gap, the rota gaps, strengthening whistleblowing protections for junior doctors and, importantly, looking at the role of guardians of safe working hours, but the Secretary of State talked in his statement about confrontation: what could be more confrontational than seeking to impose a contract? Even at this late stage, I ask him to listen to the junior doctors’ leader, Dr Ellen McCourt, when she says:

“We have a simple ask of the Government: stop the imposition. If it agrees to do this, junior doctors will call off industrial action.”

The public are looking for the Secretary of State to try and meet the junior doctors: stop vilifying them, stop pretending they are the “enemy within”, and meet their reasonable demands.

Photo of Jeremy HuntJeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Health

I will respond to the hon. Lady’s comments, but she needs to be very clear to the House about the implications of Labour’s position on this. She has just said that she welcomes the suspension of next week’s industrial action, but that was not her position at the weekend. At the weekend, when the medical royal colleges, the General Medical Council and even The Observer criticised the proposed strike, what was she saying? She was saying that she would join them on the picket line—something her predecessor refused to do. The fact is that strikes cause harm, misery and despair for families up and down the country. When one of the most extreme members of the BMA junior doctors executive, Dr Yannis Gourtsoyannis, said that these strikes were

“the single most positive thing that has occurred within NHS politics in decades”, what was Labour’s response? Did it condemn that? No. Theshadow Chancellor actually invited him to advise Labour on policy. I just say this because—

Photo of John BercowJohn BercowSpeaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Order. For clarification, I must emphasise that there is no concept of giving way in respect of a statement. Although this might resemble a debate to those who are attending our proceedings from beyond the confines of the Chamber, it is a statement with a response. There are no interventions.

Photo of Jeremy HuntJeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Health

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The shadow Health Secretary needs to recognise that working people, the people her party claims to represent, need a seven-day NHS. The vulnerable people that Labour claims to represent get admitted to hospital at the weekends, and in industrial disputes patients should always matter more than politics. The next time she meets a constituent who has suffered because of not having a seven-day service or because their operation has been cancelled because of a strike, she and her colleagues should hang their heads in shame.

The hon. Lady has used some very strong words. She used words such as “vilifying” and “demonising” in relation to the junior doctor workforce, and that is a very serious thing to say. I challenge her to find a single piece of evidence that has come from me or anyone in the Government, and if she cannot do so, she needs to withdraw those comments and apologise to the House. The fact is that the single most demoralising thing for the NHS workforce is strikes, because they entrench and harden positions, which results in people getting very angry, and it becomes much harder to find consensus.

The hon. Lady also talked about the use of statistics. She does not have to listen to what I say—and I understand, given the sparring that goes on between us, that she might not want to—but we have had eight academic studies in the past five years that describe increased mortality rates for people admitted to hospitals at weekends. Her response to this, in a phrase she used in another context, was that there was “zero empirical evidence” for a weekend effect. I would caution her on this, because taking that approach to hard data is exactly what happened at Mid Staffs, where hard evidence was swept under the carpet year after year because it was politically inconvenient. This Government will not make that mistake.

Finally, the hon. Lady said that my civil servants had apparently advised me that this policy would not work. Not at all. What happens with every Government policy, as you would expect, is that smart civil servants kick the tyres of every aspect of the policy to enable us to understand the risks involved. She did not mention the fact that the same document to which she referred actually says that we are on track to deliver the four clinical seven-day standards to 20% of the country by next April. I think that her constituents will welcome that, even if she does not. These strikes are going to harm patients, damage the NHS and make it harder, not easier, to resolve the challenges facing junior doctors. Labour has chosen political opportunity today, but we will do the right thing for patients.

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