The NHS has insisted it is ready for the Working Time Directive (WTD), which will introduce a 48-hour maximum working week for doctors from this Saturday (1 August), despite calls for it to be postponed in light of the swine-flu pandemic.
Earlier this week, top surgeons and medical bodies had 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.
But David Grantham, head of programmes at NHS Employers, which represents 600 NHS trusts, said: “NHS organisations have told us consistently that they are ready for implementation of the European Working Time Directive for junior doctors, which begins 1 August.
“Where a service needs additional hours of cover, individual doctors can voluntarily ‘opt-out’ of the 48-hour limit to provide this.”
He added just 200 out of 6,500 rotas nationally have asked to retain longer hours and asked for more time to prepare for the law change.
“NHS organisations have already been advised to discuss use of the opt-out with key staff, where that might be needed as part of their flu pandemic preparations,” he said.
Yesterday, a legal expert said the call to suspend the 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.
Constanze Hewson, partner at 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, despite the pending change in the law.”
More than 100,000 people in the UK are estimated to have caught swine flu in early July, according to the latest figures.