BMA ready to support overworked doctors who decide to take legal action

With the deadline for legal limits on junior doctors' hours only three days away, the BMA warns that it is ready to support overworked doctors who decide to take legal action.

This Sunday (1 August), the European Working Time Directive - which has covered most UK workers since 1998 - will be applied to doctors in training for the first time. The directive introduces a maximum 58 hour working week (falling to 48 in 2009), as well as new minimum rest requirements.

Mr Simon Eccles, chairman of the BMA's Junior Doctors Committee, says: "This is health and safety legislation - it's being introduced to protect patients as well as doctors, and hospitals need to take it seriously. Where the directive is flouted, the BMA will provide doctors with information, advice, and where appropriate, legal support."

Each time hospitals breach the directive for individual doctors, they will be liable to fines of up to ?5000 from the Health and Safety Executive. They could also be taken to employment tribunals by junior doctors.

Yet evidence suggests many hospitals are struggling to meet the August deadline. A survey conducted by the NHS Confederation last month showed that a sixth of trusts do not expect to be compliant with the directive on 1 August.

In addition to supporting individual doctors, the BMA is prepared to name and shame trusts who allow the new limits to reduce the quality of training. In many hospitals the impetus to cut hours has resulted in fresh approaches to working patterns that have driven up standards. However, the majority of hospitals have simply introduced shift systems, which require doctors to work for long stretches of up to 13 hours. Where such systems are used to staff hospitals at night, trainees are often denied exposure to work that increases their knowledge.

Simon Eccles says: "We shouldn't forget that junior doctors are in hospitals to learn as well as look after patients. Safe hours must not mean unsafe training."

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