• Government agreed to drop imposition threat in exchange for “time limited” negotiations
  • Agreement to negotiate follows Acas talks and months of acrimony after BMA walkout in October 2014
  • Hunt tells MPs strike action could have led to 20,000 operations being cancelled

The British Medical Association has suspended strike action planned for tomorrow by junior doctors, in response to a deal with the government to re-start negotiations over a new contract.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Commons this afternoon there had been a ”potential agreement [which] would allow a time limited period during which negotiations can take place, and during which the BMA agrees to suspend strike action and the government agrees not to proceed unilaterally with implementing a new contract”.

The BMA confirmed this evening the action tomorrow had been suspended.

It follows five days of talks between the BMA and NHS Employers, supported by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. 

In a statement tonight Acas said: ”All parties are committed to reaching an agreement that improves safety for patients and doctors and therefore NHS Employers have agreed to extend the timeframe for the BMA to commence any industrial action by four weeks to 13 January 2016 at 5pm, to allow negotiations to progress. Within that timetable, the BMA agrees to temporarily suspend its proposed strike action and the Department of Health agrees similarly to temporarily suspend implementation of a contract without agreement.

”All parties acknowledge that they share responsibility for the safety of patients and junior doctors, which must be paramount. In reaching this agreement to return to negotiations the BMA acknowledge the wish of NHS Employers and the Department of Health to agree and implement a new contract without undue delay. All sides wish to achieve a contractual framework that provides fair reward and a safe working environment for junior doctors throughout the week.”

Within the agreement the wording makes clear that the cost neutral November offer made to junior doctors will form the basis for negotiations and the deal also references the need to ensure care standards are consistent across seven days.

HSJ understands the Department of Health still wants a deal on a new contract to be in place by August 2016 but its preference remains for a negotiated settlement.

Tomorrow’s strike was due to entail junior doctors providing only emergency care for 24 hours from 8am.

The BMA has until now said it would not negotiate, and would press ahead with strike action, while the government continued to threaten to impose a contract by August 2016.

But Mr Hunt told MPs this afternoon: “After working through the weekend, discussions led to a potential agreement early this afternoon between the BMA leadership and the government. This agreement would allow a time limited period during which negotiations can take place, and during which the BMA agrees to suspend strike action and the government agrees not to proceed unilaterally with implementing a new contract.

“This agreement is now sitting with the BMA junior doctors’ executive committee who will decide later today if they are able to support it.”

Mr Hunt said NHS England had estimated that planned strike action over three days could see 20,000 operations cancelled, including approximately 1,500 cataracts operations, 900 skin lesion removals, 630 hip and knee operations, 400 spine operations, 250 gall bladder removals and nearly 300 tonsil operations.

In relation to planned strikes later in the month, on 8 and 16 December, when junior doctors were due to withdraw all labour including emergency cover, Mr Hunt said: “We are giving particular emphasis to the staffing at major trauma centres and are drawing up a list of trusts where we have concerns about patient safety.

“All trusts will have to cancel considerable quantities of elective care in order to free up consultant capacity and beds. So far the BMA has not been willing to provide assurances they will ask their members to provide urgent and emergency cover in areas where patients may be at risk and we will continue to press for such assurance.”