In Pictures: Junior doctors protest changes which 'will jeopardise patient safety'
HUNDREDS of junior doctors took part in a rally in Belfast to protest at proposed changes to their contracts - which they say will severely impact on patient safety.
While the new working conditions are due to come into force in England next August, no decision has been made yet for Northern Ireland.
The contracts will reclassify doctors' normal working week to include Saturdays and late evening working.
The biggest doctors' union, the British Medical Association (BMA), has argued the deal could mean pay cuts of up to 30 per cent, with "normal hours" classed as being from 7am to 10pm, Monday to Saturday.
Extra payments for unsociable working will be earned only outside of these times, rather than the current arrangements of 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday.
British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has hit out at the BMA, accusing the powerful union of misleading the public.
"We don’t want to cut junior doctors’ pay at all. What we do want to do is to stop hospitals being forced to roster three times less medical cover at weekends which means you are 15 per cent more likely to die if you're admitted on a Sunday, compared to during the week," he said,
Mr Hunt said he wanted to reduce the maximum hours a doctor can be asked to work from 91 to 72 hours, while they would no longer work five nights in a row.
But medics taking part in the weekend's protest outside city hall in Belfast said that despite Mr Hunt's assurances, there were "misconceptions" in the new terms which could lead to increased working hours and fewer safeguards by health trusts.
Over the past six months, there have been increasing calls for a “seven-day NHS” for all doctors, in particular senior consultants, as waiting lists continue to spiral. The move has been strongly resisted by the BMA, with many members claiming they already work a full week.
The development comes as the north’s health service finds itself tackling the worst waiting lists in Europe with almost 400,000 patients facing delays. First hospital appointments with a consultant in some specialties, including gastroenterology and orthopaedics, can take up to two years following a GP referral.
Dr Chris Hoo, deputy chair of the Northern Ireland junior doctors committee, said the new contract would put patients lives at risk.
"We cannot accept a contract that would leave junior doctors worse off, in terms of safe working hours and pay, and would make areas of medicine that are already suffering a recruitment and retention problem, such as general practice and emergency medicine, even less attractive," he said.