Patients’ lives are at risk because of European limits on junior doctors’ hours, MPs have said.
The working time directive, which Labour implemented by signing up to the European social chapter, imposes tough restrictions on the time employees, including doctors, can work.
Opening a Westminster Hall debate, Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie claimed the directive was “compromising” care, “devastating the NHS” and “eroding that professional ethos which upholds the NHS and beginning to replace it by a clock on, clock off culture”.
“Patient safety is being seriously jeopardised on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
“Lives are being put at risk because of Brussels bureaucracy.
“It doesn’t even begin to protect those workers it says it was designed to protect.”
She said the directive was introduced to stop junior doctors working 100 hours a week and insisted: “We don’t want to return to those bad old days.”
But the Bristol North West MP claimed health staff were forced to break rules to ensure patient care, and called on the government to seek get-out clauses because the limit “put a cap on excellence”.
“There are ways in other countries of getting round this,” she said.
“We have a choice as to whether we prioritise political process in Europe or whether we prioritise patients and put everything into finding some kind of way to give patients the care they deserve and the professionals the respect they deserve.”
Conservative MP and GP Dr Daniel Poulter (central Suffolk and north Ipswich) warned training was being harmed because of the directive, with patients losing touch with those responsible for their care.
“It certainly wasn’t ideal, working 100-hour weeks,” he said.
“But a rota pattern that allows training and continuity of care and properly looking after patients and actually making sure doctors have proper rest and are in a fit state to look after patients can be achieved.”
Shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne said the Conservatives needed to resist calls from the Eurosceptics in the party keen to renegotiate the EU working time directive.
He said relaxing the directive for junior doctors could see a return to dangerous working hours, adding that ministers should “tread carefully” when it came to any reforms.
Health minister Simon Burns said the working time directive had created a “simmering issue”, adding that the government wanted to bring down the cost of locums.
He said he believed people should be able to opt out of the directive’s working time limit but said it was up to NHS employers to ensure that, where junior doctors did decide to work longer hours, they did not put patients at risk because they were so tired.
Mr Burns added: “The government has made patently clear to everyone that long-term sustainable growth must be the EU’s key priority.
“Every decision the EU takes must be geared towards that so we will carry on working with our partners to make sure that EU measures… do not impose unfair costs on member states, or businesses or services like the NHS, that could hold back our economy and the delivery of services.”
He said the government was prepared to negotiate over the directive as long as an opt-out was still available.