Junior doctors vote to accept new contract

It was announced in May 2000 that junior doctors in the UK had voted overwhelmingly in favour of accepting a new pay deal negotiated between the Department of Health and the British Medical Association. The new pay system is expected to provide significant pay rises for the vast majority of junior doctors and addresses long-standing grievances over excessive working hours.

In May 2000, a ballot of junior doctors belonging to the British Medical Association (BMA) resulted in an 79% vote in favour of a new contractual arrangements and marked the end of lengthy negotiations over pay and working time issues carried out against the threat of possible industrial action (UK9910136N). The new pay system involves a range of salary bands reflecting the length and intensity of hours worked and when the work takes place, and is intended to end hospitals' traditional reliance on long working hours by junior doctors at low levels of overtime pay. It is expected to provide significant pay rises for the vast majority of junior doctors. Ministers at the Department of Health welcomed the outcome of the ballot.

The new contract will be introduced from December 2000 with pay rises being phased in over a period of two years. Existing limits on working hours (56 hours a week or 72 hours on-call), specified in the 1991 "New Deal" agreement with the government but widely exceeded in practice, will become contractually binding for first-year junior doctors from August 2001 and for all other junior doctors from August 1993. The parties say that further negotiations will now take place to finalise the arrangements for implementing the new contract.

At a meeting on 17 March, the BMA junior doctors' committee gave the go-ahead for the ballot after considering a "substantially improved" offer from the Department of Health, having rejected earlier proposals in December 1999 (UK0002154N). A special conference of junior doctors in April recognised that the proposals represented the government's final offer and that any further improvements would require industrial action by junior doctors which was not considered "achievable". The conference and the junior doctors' committee therefore recommended members to vote to accept the offer in the ballot, but also called for a "robust and independent national monitoring system" to ensure the proposed system works effectively.

According to the BMA, the new system will also give "better pay protection" in the event that the EU working time Directive (93/104/EC) is extended to junior doctors and their hours are progressively reduced (UK9906113N). On 17 May, the European Parliament endorsed a compromise text of the proposed Directive to extend the 1993 working time Directive to excluded sectors and activities agreed between the Parliament/Council of Ministers conciliation committee in April (EU0005249F). This involves transitional arrangements for reducing the working hours of doctors in training to 48 hours a week, with the possibility of further extensions to the timetable in exceptional circumstances. The BMA is "very concerned" that junior doctors could potentially have to wait 12 years from the adoption of the new Directive for the 48-hour week to apply, and hopes that everything possible is done to ensure that the Directive is implemented in the UK "within the earliest practical timescale".

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