Junior doctors protest in Belfast over changes to contracts

Doctors will move across the border if working hours increase to 90 hours per week, rally hears

Junior doctors protesting outside Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon. Photograph: Amanda Ferguson

Junior doctors protesting outside Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon. Photograph: Amanda Ferguson


Hundreds of junior doctors have staged a protest outside Belfast City Hall against proposals to change contracts it says could put patient safety at risk.

The ‘Safe Patients, Safe Doctors’ rally on Saturday afternoon was held in solidarity with colleagues protesting in London and Nottingham, amid fears “unsafe and unfair” changes to working hours could be introduced by Stormont.

The British government’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt has described current arrangements as “outdated” and indicated it will impose the new contract, introducing weekend working, in England next year.

Mr Hunt says basic salaries will be increased to compensate people and has also accused the doctors’ union - the British Medical Association (BMA) - of misleading junior doctors, something it denies.

The new contract could result in a significant increase in routine working hours from 60 to 90 hours per week.

Instead of 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday doctors could be expected to work 7am to 10pm on any day.

Campaigners say the new contract will abandon the rota planning system and the new 11-hour shift would only include one 20 minute break which they feel would present a risk to patient safety.

Scotland and Wales will stick to the old contracts but Northern Ireland has yet to make a decision.

Dr Michael Moran (35) from Belfast, who works at Craigavon Area Hospital, said effective decision making and proficiency are issues if junior doctors are tired.

The NI Junior Doctors Rally Committee representative told The Irish Times “there is a recruitment crisis in the south of Ireland so there could be a brain drain across the border” if Stormont follows England’s lead.

“If changes are introduced in Northern Ireland we would envisage an exodus of junior doctors across the border or across the Irish Sea and further afield,” he added.

“This would be a disaster for the Northern Irish health system.”

Stormont Health minister Simon Hamilton has said “an imposed contract is not the way forward” and he said he wanted to see an outcome that appropriately recognises the important contribution dedicated junior doctors make in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

Dr Moran urged Mr Hamilton to go back to work and give serious consideration to the matter.

“I would urge the Health Minister to just say no,” he said.

“We want to go to the negotiating table because it is such an important issue.”

SDLP, Alliance, DUP and People Before Profit politicians, consultants and NHS patients were among the several hundred people in attendance.

Unison is backing the campaign and called on the public to support junior doctors.

A spokesman claimed the stance taken by the Tory government “shows very clearly that they do not value the workforce in the NHS or the wellbeing of its patients and clients”.

“NHS workers here in NI are the only ones waiting for the implementation of the 1 per cent pay rise for 2014/15 recommended by the Pay Review Body, and there is no offer for the current year 2015/16,” a statement from the union added.

“Unison is planning to further mobilise our members on this issue.”

There are around 1,500 junior doctors in Northern Ireland.