LONDON (REUTERS) - British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday condemned as "totally irresponsible" a plan by English junior doctors to hold a five-day strike after the industry's trade union escalated a long-running dispute with the government.
The British Medical Association (BMA) trade union on Wednesday backed plans for a full walkout of junior doctors from 7am GMT to 4pm GMT for five days from Sept 12, the longest in the near 70-year history of the National Health Service.
Junior doctors, a term which covers recent medical school graduates right through to doctors who have been working for well over a decade, have staged a series of walkouts over a new contract the government plans to impose next month.
The government says the new arrangements are part of its plan to bring in a safer and fuller seven-day health service, but the doctors say it will result in them working longer hours at anti-social times, putting patients at risk. "The way to resolve those differences is to sit round the table to talk, it is cooperation and dialogue, it is not confrontation and strikes. That is why I think this action is totally irresponsible," Mr Hunt told BBC Radio.
He said around 100,000 operations could be cancelled as a result of the action.
In May, the BMA and the government reached a deal to end the standoff but its members then voted to reject the new terms and conditions.
The BMA said concerns focus on the impact the contract will have on part-time workers and those who work the most weekends.
"This is not a situation junior doctors wanted to find themselves in... but in forcing through a contract that junior doctors have rejected and which they don't believe is good for their patients or themselves, the government has left them with no other choice," BMA junior doctor committee chair Ellen McCourt said in a statement.
There are some 55,000 junior doctors in England, about a third of the medical workforce. NHS services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are managed separately from England.