EU social affairs Council decision fuels junior doctors' grievances over working hours

Junior doctors in the UK reacted angrily to the proposal by the May 1999 EU Labour and Social Affairs Council for an extended transition period before the working time Directive's 48-hour limit on average weekly working hours applies to doctors in training. The British Medical Association is to hold a ballot on industrial action by junior doctors in the autumn over the issue of overtime pay and excessive working hours.

Dissatisfaction on the part of junior doctors in the UK over out-of-hours pay and excessive workload has been fuelled by the outcome of the meeting of the EU's Council of Labour and Social Affairs Ministers on 25 May 1999 concerning proposals for extending the 1993 EU Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC) (EU9906178F). The Council reached political agreement on a common position on the proposed "horizontal" Directive extending the provisions of the original Directive to non-mobile workers in previously excluded sectors. The Council proposed a nine-year transition period before the standard 48-hour limit on average weekly working hours would apply to doctors in training: a maximum average working week of 60 hours would apply for the first three years; a 56-hour limit would apply for the following three years; and a 52-hour limit would apply for a further three years. Taking account of the proposed four-year timetable for national transposition of the Directive, the limit on the weekly working hours of doctors in training would be brought down to 48 hours over a total of 13 years after the adoption of the Directive.

According to a statement issued by the Labour and Social Affairs Council, the Member States which sought an extended transition period, including the UK, considered that it was necessary in order to train doctors in sufficient numbers so as to allow the ultimate implementation of the Directive. UK health secretary Frank Dobson said that the agreement was "good news" for junior doctors, and would allow their hours to be cut gradually over a realistic timetable while maintaining high standards of junior doctor education and patient care. However, doctors' leaders in the UK were highly critical of the Council's move.

The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents junior doctors, said that it was "appalled" by the Council proposal which would initially involve working hours limits higher than the terms of the 1991 "New Deal" agreement between the BMA and the Department of Health, under which junior doctors in the UK should already work no more than 56 hours a week (or 72 hours on call with adequate rest periods). The BMA accepts that the working time Directive would have to be introduced flexibly to enable the National Health Service (NHS) to train sufficient extra doctors, but argues that a 54-hour interim limit over a seven-year transition period, as suggested by the European Commission, is a "sensible proposal which the BMA could support".

Junior doctors' working hours in the UK have long been a source of friction between the BMA, the NHS and the government. The latest official figures show that in March 1999 over a quarter of junior doctors were found to be working beyond the "New Deal" limits. Junior doctors are also aggrieved that "out-of-hours" pay is generally only half their normal hourly pay rate and that no special arrangements are to be made for the Millennium holiday period.

In early June 1999, the annual junior doctors' conference of the BMA voted for a ballot on industrial action over long hours and low overtime pay. A BMA survey suggests that as many as 95% of junior doctors would support some form of industrial action. On 10 June, leaders of the BMA and its junior doctors' committee held a meeting with health minister John Denham, at which it was agreed to open negotiations on the junior doctors' concerns. However, the BMA said the negotiations "would not alter [its] plans to ballot junior doctors on industrial action if a solution to this crisis is not reached by the end of August".

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