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EU supports delay in reducing doctors' hours

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7197.1508 (Published 05 June 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1508
  1. Lind Beecham
  1. BMJ

    The European Union's Council of Ministers has agreed to delay until 2012 the full implementation of the European 48 hour working time directive to the hours worked by junior hospital doctors.

    The European Commission had proposed that junior doctors' hours should be reduced to a maximum of 54 hours a week for seven years followed by implementation of the directive. The new agreement, which was leaked last month (15 May, p 1307), means that the hours will remain the same for four years (with no maximum limit) and then reduce to a maximum of 60 for three years, 56 for three years, and 52 for three years, before reducing finally to a maximum of 48.

    The United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland argued that the longer phasing in time was necessary to enable enough doctors to be trained as consultants to cope with the shorter working weeks.

    The UK health secretary, Frank Dobson, said that the agreement was “good news for junior doctors and good news for the NHS.” He said that no junior doctor would have to work longer than at present. “The directive's objective must be brought in gradually to maintain the high standard of junior education and to safeguard patient care,” he added.

    The decision has to be voted on by the newly elected European parliament later this year, and the BMA will be lobbying members of parliament.

    Mr Andrew Hobart, chairman of the BMA's Junior Doctors Committee, said: “We are extremely disappointed that there is to be no legal limit to reduce junior doctors' hours for the next four years. In 1991 the new deal for junior doctors set a limit of 56 working hours, with an implementation date of December 1996,and yet two years later there are still thousands of junior doctors working beyond this limit.

    “We will have to wait for seven years to get a legal obligation to reduce junior doctors' hours to the new deal restriction. The only limit that junior doctors will now be working to is the 168 hours that there are in a week.”

    The European Union's social affairs commissioner, Padraig Flynn, said that he was “very, very dismayed” at the decision. He said that it was unacceptable for patients to be treated by doctors who were exhausted and that such a long transitional period was “not politically feasible or morally acceptable. It does not take 13 years to improve work organisation in European hospitals.”

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