The Department of Health has pledged to find ways to help more doctors opt out of the European working time directive, which the authority admits has led to rigid shift patterns and had a detrimental effect on training.

The pledge is one of a number of proposals to tackle concerns about the directive, highlighted by a taskforce led by Norman Williams, former president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

The DH said it accepted the taskforce’s recommendations in full.

Allowing doctors to opt out would allow trainees gaining experience in areas such as surgery to carry out more work related training.

Health Education England has also been tasked with helping trusts redesign staff rotas to give doctors more time to access education.

It will also explore splitting some training from work related activity.

The government said the directive had increased the number of handovers between doctors, increasing the risk of mistakes.

Any changes will be built into deals agreed between NHS Employers and the British Medical Association, currently in talks on revising trainee contracts.

Dean Royles, chief executive of NHS Employers, said negotiations about junior contracts were ongoing but said the presence of consultants was also necessary.

“Effective training of junior doctors is hugely dependent on the availability and presence of consultants, and as we move ever closer to seven day care, having more consultants on site for more of the week will add to that training experience,” he said.

“The sooner we conclude the consultant contract negotiations, the better for patients and for those that care for them.”

Mark Porter, chair of the BMA, said junior doctor work and training was “inseparable”.

“This leads to unique pressures that can’t be resolved just by increasing working hours,” he said.

“Having the right degree of flexibility in the system is important, but we must not create a culture in which doctors feel pressured into opting out of the 48 hour weekly limit that protects patients.

“As part of ongoing contract discussions, the BMA and NHS Employers are examining how to ensure all doctors have enough time for training.

“For junior doctors this means ensuring they receive sufficient training opportunities during their placements so they acquire the knowledge and skills they need to become specialists of the future.

“For consultants this means having protected time to supervise junior doctors and assure quality of patient care.”

The working time directive aims to prevent doctors working longer than 48 hours a week.