European MPs have voted to end all opt-out clauses for countries on working hours, which would force UK doctors to work no more than 48 hours a week.
The vote this week on the European Working Time Directive means that all workers would be limited to a 48-hour working week and end the UK’s opt-out agreement, first secured in 1993, to allow some people to work longer if they chose to.
The BMA, however, said it hoped there was still some flexibility to be had when a “conciliation process” follows in the coming months, during which changes can be made to the proposals so that the directive is workable across the European Union.
The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted 421 to 273 for ending all opt-outs, saying there should be no exceptions, but the issue will be decided late next year as the directive is now likely to go into conciliation – the final stage of negotiations.
The European Parliament has also said that any period of on-call time should count as working time.
The BMA’s junior doctors committee said that time spent on call in hospital should count towards doctors’ total hours, but added that it was concerned that the Parliament had also voted in favour of eventually phasing out the individual opt-out.
Dr Andy Thornley, chairman of the BMA’s junior doctor committee, said: “Patients should be relieved that the European Parliament has rejected an amendment which could have led to junior doctors being resident in hospitals for excessively long periods with little chance of proper uninterrupted rest. Patients deserve to be seen by doctors who are bright and alert rather than tired and overworked.”
The BMA said it was important that the commitment to include time spent resident on call in doctors’ working hours was not removed from the finalised directive.
Commenting on the vote in favour of phasing out the opt-out, Dr Jonathan Fielden, chairman of the BMA’s consultants committee, said: “Those doctors who have individual control of their working lives should be able to use their professional judgement to decide whether it is safe for them to opt out.
“Patients deserve safe, high quality care. The NHS desperately needs an expansion in the number of consultants yet removing the flexibility of the opt-out will deny patients access to some of the UK’s most experienced doctors. We hope the conciliation process will provide scope for individual member states to bargain collectively for a workable solution that protects patients, health workers, and the NHS.”