Jeremy Hunt has admitted junior doctors who walked out on strike last year in a dispute over their contracts “had a point”.
Appearing before a Parliamentary select committee, the health secretary said he agreed with the concerns raised over patient safety and that more had to be done to ensure the NHS was properly resourced and funded in the years ahead.
“There was one point where I thought the junior doctors had a point, which is where they said ’You say you care about patient safety, but we go to work and there are gaps in our rotas, and there aren’t enough people – colleagues – alongside us to allow us to deliver the kind of care that we want,” he told MPs.
Thousands of doctors held a series of strikes during 2016, supported by the British Medical Association, over new ‘seven-day NHS’ contracts imposed on them by the government.
Staff said their new working conditions would compromise the safety of those needing treatment – but at the time Theresa May accused the BMA of failing to put patients first and “playing politics”.
Hunt told the health select committee on Tuesday afternoon that he recognised “happy staff means happy patients” and that a key component of ensuring the safety of those in hospital was keeping the NHS workforce motivated.
“What I would certainly not say is that we are expecting people to work harder, because I do not think that is possible at the moment,” he said.
“I think people in the health service work extremely hard – in fact, I think they are working harder than they have ever worked, because hospitals and GPs surgeries are very busy places.”
The committee heard long-term budget plans had not taken into account a huge rise in demand on the health service, but Hunt refused to give details of “ongoing” conversations he is conducting with Philip Hammond over its future funding.
He said the coming years would be “challenging” and that the Chancellor had alluded to more savings being made in exchange for extra cash in the budget – details of which will be announced on November 22.
Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, the health secretary said: “I will be making a very robust case for the NHS to get the resources it needs as I am sure other Cabinet ministers will for their departments.”