• Doctors' union plans to withdraw labor to protest new contract
  • Government pushing to expand weekend health coverage in NHS

Independent arbitrators called talks for Jan. 8 in a last-ditch bid to avert a strike by junior hospital doctors in England over government plans to impose a new contract that will change the way they’re paid, reducing compensation for weekend work. 

The British Medical Association, the doctors’ labor union, announced Monday that a series of strikes would go ahead after the failure of negotiations with the U.K. Department of Health and the state-run National Health Service. The doctors -- medical-school graduates who are training to be consultants or family practitioners -- will provide emergency care only for 24 hours starting at 8 a.m. on Jan. 12 and stage a similar 48-hour protest two weeks later. A full-scale nine-hour strike is scheduled for Feb. 10.

“We have invited the sides involved in the junior doctors’ dispute for ACAS talks this Friday,” the London-based Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said in a brief e-mailed statement. “Talks are expected to start at 10 a.m.”

The junior doctors first voted to strike in November. They then called off action planned for December to allow for further negotiations with the government. The renewed decision to strike, the BMA said, meant that “junior doctors in England will be taking industrial action for the first time in 40 years.”

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been pushing for implementation of the new contract to aid his drive to expand weekend health-care coverage in the NHS, criticized the BMA’s decision in Parliament Tuesday.

“We had made significant progress in negotiations on 15 of the 16 areas of concern, including doctors’ hours and patient safety, and will now do everything we can to make sure that patients are safe,” he told lawmakers. “We promised the British people we would deliver truly seven-day services and, with study after study telling us that hospitals have higher mortality rates than should be expected at weekends, no change is not an option.”

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