Campaigners have called on the government to suspend EU rules that limit doctors to working 48 hours a week in a bid to cope with the mounting pressure on the NHS caused by swine flu.

Doctors’ pressure group RemedyUK says the situation will be exacerbated if staff go off sick and wants to see special measures implemented to bypass the reduction in hours from 56 to 48.

Junior doctors are due to come under the European working time directive on Saturday. Other doctors have been working under the rules for some time.

Although individual doctors can choose to work longer by opting out of the rules, there are calls for entire departments to be able to opt out.

The Royal College of Surgeons has also called for the working time directive to be suspended if the situation gets worse.

In the meantime, the Department of Health has said doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff can work longer hours when necessary. “During national emergencies there are special provisions and flexibility within the regulations for emergency situations,” a spokesperson said.

“Medical directors have plans in place to ensure NHS organisations are able meet the needs of patients and that the hours doctors and other healthcare staff work are balanced over a period. Medical directors will carefully review the local situation as the current pandemic flu outbreak continues.”