Cutting doctors hours during swine flu outbreak is unnecessary risk labour Government is warned
Implementing the European Working Time Directive next Saturday, when the NHS is already under pressure with 100,000 new cases of swine flu being diagnosed in a week, is the ‘probably the worst time in living memory to do this’, the junior doctors’ campaign group RemedyUK said.
Junior doctors are the last group of NHS staff to come into the Directive this Saturday by cutting their working week from 56 hours to 48.
Experts have warned that the NHS is not ready for the change and there will be gaps left in rotas putting patients at risk.
John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons said if swine flu turns into a major crisis, the Government should show leadership and suspend the Directive.
He said: “We could have a one, two or three-stage serious pandemic. If that happens everybody of course will work whatever hours are necessary to keep the patients alive in a crisis.”
“I trust that if that happens the Government will not fudge it and they will actually say that the European Working Time Directive leaves no slack at all in the system and if there is a major crisis it should be suspended.”
Richard Marks, Head of Policy at Remedy, said: “Millions have been spent on staff call-centres using non-medical staff to diagnose and prescribe (for swine flu) but at the same time they are reducing doctors’ working week by one full day.
“It’s probably the worst time in living memory to do this.”
Doctors are likely to be in short supply during a flu outbreak as they are in the frontline of exposure to the virus and are at increased risk of falling ill themselves and may also have sick children to care for during the peak of a pandemic.
RemedyUK has called for the introduction of the Directive to be delayed until the uncertainties over how the flu outbreak are resolved.
Dr Matt Jameson Evans, chairman of Remedy, said: “Unfortunately we have a camel’s back situation and swine-flu is more of a sledge hammer than a straw.
“We already know most doctors are against EWTD, we just need the leadership to do the right thing here.”
Dr Andy Thornley, Chairman of the BMA’s Junior Doctor Committee said: “Clearly pandemic flu is going to place additional pressure on an NHS that is trying to adapt to the introduction of the 48-hour week for junior doctors.
“The government need to be much clearer in communicating how it plans to deal with these additional pressures as it is unacceptable that so little information is trickling down to junior doctors.
“It is also important that the NHS works hard to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and inappropriate work so that junior doctors can do what they do best – treat their patients.
The Directive does not allow for wholesale suspension but if individual staff work longer than the 48-hour limit the time can be balanced out over the coming months.
A report due from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is expected to criticise ministers for not setting up the National Pandemic Flu Service in April.