Some flexibility in trainee working hours could be acceptable although scrapping the European Working Time Regulations (EWTR) completely would not be an option, claims new junior doctors committee (JDC) chair Dr Ben Molyneaux.
He was commenting on a Lords debate on the ongoing EU negotiations on revising the directive.
Health minister Earl Howe told the Lords that the government would welcome proposals that would preserve the right of NHS workers to choose the hours they worked, have flexibility in on-call time and compensatory rest and to opt out.
“The inflexibilities of the directive need to be addressed but we should not go back to the bad old days when doctors became too tired to do their work…There is a balance to be struck,” he said.
In response to a question about whether data was collected on the number of patients harmed as result of the EWTD Earl Howe said that in January 2010 trusts reported that nearly 99% of doctors’ rotas were compliant. But he added: “We are in no doubt about the concerns that exist within the medical professions about the inflexibilities within the rules of the directive.”
Molyneaux said: “Working time legislation has been debated by the JDC many times because the committee is aware of the diversity of opinion on the issue. However, tired doctors make mistakes, and we must think of the welfare of doctors and the resultant impact fatigue can have on patient care.
“There is a mounting body of evidence to support the move to reduced working hours in terms of patient safety. While flexibility may be appropriate, scrapping the directive is not.”
Following the European Parliament’s failure to agree on revisions to the Directive, the EU Social Partners (a pan-Member State trade union and employer organisation) began their own negotiations.
Originally they had until September 2012 in which to agree on a proposed revision. In August 2012 it was decided to extend this period until December 2012, following indications that the discussions were making progress.
The most controversial areas of the regulations concern the immediate scheduling of compensatory rest after longer shifts and that all time on call counts as equivalent work time.
Molyneaux said: “If the EU Social Partners come out with something that is completely contrary to the status quo in December I will be concerned. But I don’t think the core concept of restrictions on working time will change as that would be a retrograde step.”