Swine flu: Call to suspend Working Time Directive may be premature

The call to suspend the Working Time Directive (WTD) in light of the swine-flu epidemic may be premature, as the legislation allows for weekly hours to be averaged out over longer periods of time, according to a legal expert.

The European WTD is due to come into force on Saturday 1 August, meaning no doctor can work more than 48 hours per week. Top surgeons and medical bodies have urged ministers to postpone the start date of the new directive due to the ongoing H1N1 flu pandemic, warning the NHS will not be able to cope without doctors’ working longer hours.

More than 100,000 people in the UK are estimated to have caught swine flu in early July, according to the latest figures.

However, Constanze Hewson, partner at international law firm Eversheds, said: “The regulations already make express provision for weekly hours to be averaged out over a longer period and for rest periods to be adjusted in the event of unforeseeable circumstances or where continuity requires. The reality of lower working hours for doctors may yet prove unachievable therefore, despite the pending change in the law.”

Hewson added: “There is no sign that the government will seek to move the 1 August date. Instead, should the epidemic progress to the extent and in the way that is anticipated (albeit this not certain), it seems more likely the contingencies built in to the Working Time Regulations may be called in to operation.”

But, John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, warned NHS trusts would struggle to cope with organising work shifts if the swine-flu pandemic worsened this winter. Doctors’ pressure group Remedy UK also called on the government to bypass the EU regulation.

The Department of Health said that the NHS had plans in place to meet the needs of patients, and insisted doctors, nurses and healthcare staff could work longer hours if and when they needed to.

Earlier this year, Personnel Today learned a swine-flu outbreak in the UK could cost employers £1.5bn a day, with up to a quarter of the country’s workforce potentially going off sick.

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