Junior doctors have suspended plans to go on a series of five-day strikes to protest against changes to their contracts after a “vigorous debate” following a change in leadership.
The British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee (JDC) said it would not go ahead with the industrial action, but was “planning other actions over the coming weeks”.
The decision follows a challenge to the leadership of Dr Ellen McCourt, chairwoman of the committee, by doctors from Justice for Health.
McCourt fought off the challengers but there were changes to other members of the junior doctors leadership, who held a summit on Saturday to discuss their new strategy.
“After a vigorous, passionate, thoughtful and wide-ranging debate this afternoon, the JDC has decided to suspend industrial action while planning other actions over the coming weeks,” the committee said in a statement.
The decision was prompted by “feedback from members from every region in England, as well as the views of the wider profession, patients and the public in considering the next steps on the dispute”.
“Our primary consideration in coming to this decision has been our overriding concern about patient safety, the care we provide every day and the ability of the health service to deliver this care,” it added.
“To be absolutely clear, the JDC still opposes the implementation of the contract … The past few months have been difficult and frustrating and we know that members are anxious for information and practical support.”
Junior doctors have been in a long-running dispute with the government over its decision to change their contracts to make it cheaper for the NHS to provide weekend cover.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, decided to impose the new contract on junior doctors, five of whom last week sought to have the decision overturned in the high court. Lord Justice Green’s ruling on that is due on Wednesday.
Union sources say hundreds of trainee medics voicing their concern about the proposed walkouts had led to serious fears that strike turnout would be poor and that the BMA would end up divided, weakened and lowered in public esteem as a result of the stoppages.
Many junior doctors were also concerned that the long duration of the planned strike would put patients’ safety at risk and risk a backlash from the public if anything untoward happened in a hospital while they were protesting outside. Medics have also voiced confusion about the objectives of the stoppages, given that the union’s leadership backed in the early summer the new contract they had negotiated, only to see grassroots juniors reject the improved terms and conditions by 58% to 42%.
McCourt was elected as interim chair after the former leader, Johann Malawana, resigned after 58% of junior doctors rejected a compromise contract.
One senior BMA official said: “Junior doctors don’t want to put patients at risk and don’t want to go ahead with a five-day strike. Quite a few don’t want any more strike action at all. Even the few JDC members who still think that they can’t give up totally wanted the 5-day strike scaled down.
“Junior doctors don’t have the heart or the stomach for this anymore. They don’t see the point of industrial action. They feel let down and blame both Jeremy Hunt and the BMA equally.”
There is also mounting anger and confusion among junior doctors at what many see as the BMA’s lack of clear strategy in first electing to hold all-out stoppages of unprecedented duration without defining what their purpose was.
The Department of Health welcomed the suspension of the strikes, saying: “The best way to rebuild trust now is for industrial action to be called off permanently in the interests of patients – and we urge the BMA to do so.”
The strike action was originally planned for this month, but the first five-day walkout was cancelled after opposition from other members of the medical profession.
Opposition to the planned strikes came from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents all the doctors’ professional bodies.
Nearest tube – Elephant & Castle underground station (Northern and Bakerloo lines).
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