The British Medical Association has called off the junior doctors’ strike due to take place in England next week amid concerns about patient safety.
The BMA said it was not backing down in the fight over a new contract and further strikes would go ahead unless the government negotiates a new deal.
Medical leaders had warned the short notice meant care would be put at risk.
Jeremy Hunt welcomed the announcement, but said future strikes would bring “unprecedented misery” to patients.
The General Medical Council had urged doctors to reconsider the stoppage, warning they could face regulatory action because the timing and length of the walkout would mean care was inevitably compromised.
The BMA said the decision was made after a meeting with officials from NHS England.
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Junior doctors leader Dr Ellen McCourt said: “Patient safety remains doctors’ primary concern.
“While the BMA provided more than the required notice, we have taken this decision to ensure the NHS has the necessary time to prepare and to put in place contingency plans to protect patient safety.
“Our hospitals are chronically understaffed, our NHS is desperately underfunded – we have to listen to our colleagues when they tell us that they need more time to keep patients safe.
“Future action is still avoidable. The BMA has repeatedly said it will call off further action if the government puts a halt to plans to force junior doctors to work under a contract they have rejected because they don’t believe it is good for the future of patient care or the profession.”
By Hugh Pym, BBC health editor
It looks like a presentational own goal by the BMA in this increasingly acrimonious dispute – announcing an escalated series of strikes with limited notice, and then having to cancel the first one because of high-level warnings about lack of time for hospital contingency planning.
We can assume there was intense debate within the BMA about the decision, as there was last week when the original strikes plan was announced.
Junior doctors’ leaders said that working doctors as well as patients had expressed concerns about the short notice given for the first strike, and the decision to drop it was all about securing patient safety.
The BMA seems determined to press on with strikes in October, November and December with hospitals having more time to make appropriate plans.
As things stand, there is no evidence that the junior doctors’ support for the campaign of industrial action has diminished.
The contract is due to start being imposed from October.
Health Secretary Mr Hunt told MPs: “We mustn’t let [the announcement] obscure the fact that the remaining planned industrial action is unprecedented in length and severity and will be damaging for patients – some of whom will have already had operations cancelled.
“It is deeply perplexing for patients, NHS leaders and indeed the government that the reaction of the BMA leadership, who previously supported this contract, is now to initiate the most extreme strike action in NHS history – inflicting unprecedented misery on millions of patients up and down the country.
Chris Hopson, of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said it was the right decision as the health service had been given “barely any notice to prepare”.
“We continue to urge the BMA to call off the remaining strikes to prevent further distress, delay and pain to patients.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “We urge the BMA and Department of Health to meet urgently and participate in meaningful and sincere negotiations in order to resolve this impasse.”
“It is vital that there is a coherent plan with a satisfactory resolution for all parties, and the only way this can be achieved is if the two parties show willingness to resume discussion,” she added.
Next week’s strike – which was due to occur between 08:00 and 17:00 BST from Monday to Friday – was to be the first of four all-out five-day stoppages during the rest of the year.
The remaining strikes take place during the same hours each day on:
- Wednesday 5 October to Tuesday 11 October (although the weekend will be covered)
- Monday 14 November to Friday 18 November
- Monday 5 December to Friday 9 December
The stoppages come after junior doctors have already taken part in six strikes this year, including two one-day all-out stoppages.
Industrial action was put on hold in May when the two sides got back round the table at conciliation service Acas.
That resulted in the agreement of a new contract, which BMA leaders encouraged members to accept.
But when it was put to the vote, 58% of medics rejected it, prompting the resignation of the BMA junior doctor leader Johann Malawana and causing ministers to announce once again that they would impose the new terms and conditions.
A new junior doctor leader, Dr McCourt, was appointed and, in August, the committee she leads called for the union’s leaders to sanction the fresh strikes which have been announced.
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