The Department of Health has formally announced it wants trusts to be able to opt out of the European working time directive on behalf of junior doctors.
The DH is writing to the European Commission to ask if doctors training in hospital services delivering "24-hour, immediate patient care" can be excluded from the 48-hour limit on weekly working hours imposed by the directive from August.
The commission will respond by 1 May.
An update published on the DH website states: "There is an absolute commitment to support the NHS in achieving compliance with the WTD.
"Our over-riding objective is quality and safety of patient care. We want to provide doctors in training with a good work-life balance and good training."
It says strategic health authorities have submitted a "small number" of applications for derogation from the directive, which will be "rigorously scrutinised".
Cases that do not have sufficient grounds to delay compliance will be referred back.
By June, local services facing special difficulties will be identified. These services will then be listed by trust, service and rota and added as a schedule to the working time regulations.
Services listed in the schedule would then be able to plan for a maximum working week of 52 hours averaged over 26 weeks, until they can achieve full compliance.
Royal College of Physicians president Ian Gilmore said: "While derogation provides for only an additional four hours, this will undoubtedly afford some vitally needed breathing space for some services while the profession, with government, develops a more sustainable solution to the acute challenge the service now faces in providing quality clinical care."
To read the DH update, go to www.dh.gov.uk