I declare my interest as a doctor, and a veteran of truly awful rotas of the 1980s, involving one in two very often—that is every other weekend, every other night on duty, as well as a normal working day, which I would not recommend to either patients or practitioners. Thankfully, they are a thing of the past.
I welcome very much the Health Secretary’s statement today and the guarantees that he has given. On that basis, I am more than happy to support the Government this evening. However, I would say that we need to insist on evidence-based policy making. It is important to understand the difference between a causal effect and an association. My worry is that perhaps the Front Bench has been more influenced by Euclidean theorem than a proper understanding of statistics. My reading of the Freemantle paper and Professor Sutton’s remarks lead me to conclude that no causal link has been established between doctors’ rostering and excess weekend deaths. If we are serious about reducing weekend deaths, and reducing the difference in health outcomes between this country and countries with which we could reasonably be compared, which I know that my colleagues on the Front Bench are, we need to properly understand what are the drivers of those differences, and I do not think that junior doctors’ hours are a principal driver in the problem that we are trying to address today.
I think it is also right to appreciate that we are heavily dependent on the good will of all doctors—consultant grades and junior doctors. Most doctors that I know work well beyond their contracted hours—I know I certainly used to when I was in hospital medicine—and in dealing with them and in communicating with them, we need to keep that in mind and not take that good will for granted.
I very much regret the BMA action, and I very much regret the ballot on
BMA, armed with the assurances we have had today, to think again. I say “ironically” because, of course, the proposals, as I understand them to be, would increase core hours, which are pensionable—out-of-hours are not—and I have yet to see the BMA make any comment on that, or indeed reflect it in its pay calculator. Maybe a belated understanding of that has meant that it has chosen to take it down.
In trying to reduce weekend deaths and in trying to reduce that gap between our health outcomes in this country and those in the rest of Europe, we need to be focused much more broadly than on junior doctors’ hours. I know the Health Secretary is trying to work out how we can best configure the health service of the future. It is a dynamic thing; it never is fixed in one place. In my opinion, part of that means looking at our NHS estate all the time to make sure that we are getting the best from our assets. In my opinion, it means concentrating our specialist services in larger, regional and sub-regional centres. Those centres find it much easier to roster junior doctors and to concentrate expertise in one place. I am talking about stroke, heart attack and upper gastrointestinal bleeding—all things where we do less well in this country than in countries with which we should be comparable.