The European Parliament's best intentions cannot overcome implacable reality. However desirable it is to shorten junior doctors' hours, including them in the working-time directive - and stipulating that within four years they will not be able to work more than 54 hours a week - is a challenge that the NHS is frankly incapable of meeting.

Simple arithmetic proves the point. Although the government has planned an extra 1,000 medical school places, it will take a decade before the fruits of this feed through into the service in the form of new senior house officers and registrars. The Europe-wide forum for the medical profession calculates that implementing the directive would need another 6,000 doctors in the NHS. And these sums take no account of the additional money the service would need as a result, nor its likelihood of getting it.

But 13 years seem an unconscionable time, and a potential public relations disaster. Firm commitments to steady progress, regularly measured, are needed. So, too, is an eye to avoiding the insensitive treatment of this hard-pressed and long-suffering group of NHS staff exemplified by the Scrooge-like approach to paying them over the millennium holiday.