• Jeremy Hunt says “constructive” negotiations under way with NHS unions on further contract reform
  • The junior doctor dispute with the BMA was “wholly avoidable”, says health secretary
  • Mr Hunt claims proposed changes will improve flexible working, quality and morale

The government is having “constructive” negotiations with NHS staff unions with a view to reforming the Agenda for Change contract framework, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

He said ministers were keen to achieve changes to contracts for the one million staff on Agenda for Change contracts as well as hospital consultants which would “improve contracts for staff”.

Mr Hunt said he was not looking for his “next big battle to fight” over contracts, and that he was saddened by the “wholly avoidable” damaging dispute with junior doctors.

The health secretary accepted there was a real issue of morale in the NHS as a result of the dispute and strike action by junior doctors. He told HSJ: “Any time there is an industrial dispute there is a very big impact on morale.

“Morale impacts on quality of care, yes. That is why the changes that we want to make to contracts are things that will improve quality of care and morale. The trusts that are meeting the four clinical standards for seven day hospital care are trusts that have some of the highest morale in the NHS and… delivering better care for patients.”

He also said: “The organisations that complain loudest about morale falling are sometimes the organisations that have been responsible.”

The NHS Employers organisation, which negotiates on behalf of the government, has been in talks with both consultants and Agenda for Change unions. HSJ understands there will not be any firm proposal from discussions with consultants until April 2017.

Mr Hunt said: “We are having very constructive talks with the consultants’ committee and Agenda for Change unions because what we are looking to do are not changes that will be negative for NHS staff but they are actually changes that will improve contracts for staff.

“One example is to improve what we do on flexible working. These are things that will keep people in the workforce, stop people feeling they have to become locums or work for agencies and will improve care for patients.”

Talks over Agenda for Change contracts are widely expected to include negotiation of antisocial hours payments, which are likely to be controversial.

Mr Hunt added of the junior doctor dispute: “It is not the case that I sought out that confrontation or that I am looking for the next big battle to fight.

“I think it is incredibly sad that we had to have that battle, it was wholly avoidable and I hope we can work much more constructively in the future with other groups representing the NHS workforce.”