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Since announcing the ‘imposition’ of his new Junior Doctors contract some weeks ago, Jeremy Hunt has definitely been keeping his head down, especially after the palpable anger that doctors displayed after seeing examples of the kinds of shift patterns they would be expected to work.
I imagine he’s holed up in the bowels of Westminster, reclining in a deeply padded room watching re-runs of ER, wearing body armour and a crash helmet, eating only with plastic cutlery, keeping a defibrillator and an industrial sized tub of Germolene within easy reach. After all I doubt he’s going to want to risk an unplanned trip to A&E any time soon.
But in his absence there seems to have been a change in rhetoric surrounding his grand plans. Talk of ‘imposition’ of new contracts has almost seamlessly morphed into them merely being ‘introduced’.
It would be nice to think that this new approach had something to do with the junior doctors’ dogged pursuit of Mr Hunt in a quest for constructive talks over the sordid morass this dispute has become. Talks that, if Hunt was willing to enter, would see the first ever ‘all-out’ NHS strike immediately halted.
Perhaps the continued public support for their unprecedented industrial action has softened his heart, or the realisation that he has almost single-handedly brought one of the most respected groups of people in Britain to the brink of outright rebellion.
It could have been the poignant sight of doctors Rachel Clarke and Dagan Lonsdale sitting at their makeshift conference table outside the Department of Health, fervently hoping that Mr Hunt would at last emerge to sit down and talk seriously about how the hell they both got to this ridiculous state of affairs, and what would be the best way out for all concerned.
They’ve thoughtfully provided a chair with his name on. They’ve even spelt it correctly.
But I think the real reason may be that he’s finally realised he’s not ‘Jez The Imposer’ and he does have to abide by the same laws and responsibilities as any other employer in this country.
Employment contracts are not feudal pronouncements. When employers take on new staff, terms are pretty much a take them or leave them affair. But existing employees can’t simply be subject to a bosses every whim when it’s most expedient to impose new working times and conditions
Even without a strong union in place, doctors have rights just like any other employee, and for a contract to be binding it has to be agreed by both parties. Try to re-write it without mutual consent and you’ll be up in front of an industrial tribunal before you can say ACAS.
It now seems apparent that Mr Hunt was blissfully unaware of this as he beat his chest and refused to negotiate with doctors. His absence now may be more to do with Department of Health lawyers sitting him down in a quiet room and explaining to him how the real world works.
As five doctors from a group called Justice for Health prepare a case in the High Court, Hunt has had to hurriedly re-trench his positon having dragged the country and, of more immediate significance to him – Parliament, to a potentially messy impasse.
One can only surmise that we’ll now see a spectacularly grand game of chicken while Hunt tries to escape accusations that he misled Westminster over the potential outcome of this dispute, and the BMA ready themselves for a climb-down of herculean proportions. Maybe even a resignation or two.
Or Mr Hunt could rouse himself from his secret lair and wander blinking into the light of final realisation that there may be more to this Health Minister lark than simply stamping your foot to get your own way. Unless you want to risk a sprained ankle that is.
Although if he does do himself an injury, he’ll find a couple of well trained professionals waiting outside his office ready to offer him a chair and a chat while they do their job more professionally than he seems to be able to do his.
He might do well to avail himself of their services while they’re still on offer. After all, a slightly bruised pride will be a lot easier for them to treat than the terminal injury of falling on his sword.