Forty eight hour working week becomes law

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 26 September 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:833
  1. Linda Beecham
  1. Linda Beecham, BMJ

    Consultants in Britain are worried that if the European Union's working time directive, which comes into force on 1 October, is applied rigidly the NHS will be unable to operate effectively.

    Under the directive all senior hospital doctors will be entitled to work only an average of 48 hours a week and have a weekly rest period of 24 hours every week, 11 hours' consecutive rest each day, and a minimum 20 minute rest break if the working day is longer than six hours. The regulations require employers to keep records of the hours worked by senior hospital doctors.

    Senior doctors, for example, would not be available to be recalled to the hospital during their weekly rest breaks and would not be required to work more than an average of eight hours a night while on call. A larger workforce would be required and services to patients would be disrupted.

    The negotiators have been discussing with the NHS Executive, which is responsible for implementing the directive, the agreements that will have to be reached--for example, on defining on call duties, the periods over which working hours will have to be averaged, and the need for any derogations about sectors which require continuity of service. The regulations allow for employees to accrue compensatory rest for hours worked during rest breaks. This would allow doctors to carry out their duties flexibly, and continuity of service would be maintained.

    The deputy chairman of the Central Consultants and Specialists Committee, Dr Peter Hawker, said: “The directive gives us a unique opportunity to put an upper limit on the ever expanding workload of consultants, but they should not enter into any deal with their employers until they have seen the agreement that we hope to reach before the end of the month. I hope that we will be able to issue joint guidance with the NHS Executive.”

    The committee wants the 48 hour limit to be applied with minimum disruption to the service or to doctors' professional lives. It believes that doctors should not have to take decisions individually about limitations on their working hours.

    Although junior hospital doctors are excluded from the directive, if the white paper produced by the European Commission in 1997 is implemented they will be covered, although implementation could take several years. This would mean a reduction from 56 to 48 hours of actual work. However, all doctors could still choose to work longer than 48 hours.

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