The health secretary, Victoria Atkins, has spoken of her “respect” for striking junior doctors in advance of fresh pay talks, in a move that highlights a markedly different tone from her predecessor, Steve Barclay.
In an interview with the Times, Atkins said she wanted to build a “new relationship with the British Medical Association” and had found the leaders of the BMA junior doctors’ committee to be “very constructive”. Previously, Barclay had claimed that the BMA had a politically “militant stance”. He had also accused NHS staff in England of planning “politically timed” industrial action.
Atkins, who was appointed health secretary less than three weeks ago, said she was entering discussions with a “constructive frame of mind”. She also refused to echo Barclay’s description of the BMA as “militant”, in a clear move towards a more conciliatory dialogue with the trade union. In the interview, Atkins said: “Of course I respect junior doctors. I have admiration for our doctors but also nurses and our volunteers.”
Atkins said that junior doctors “understood” that the government would not be able to meet some of their asks. Junior doctors have been striking since the start of the year in pursuit of their claim for a 35% pay rise to compensate for a 26.2% erosion in the value of their salaries since 2008-09.
Earlier this week, Atkins agreed a deal with senior doctors in England that could end strikes by hospital consultants. Grassroots members of the BMA and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association in England still have to approve the government’s offer, but the deal would mean the country’s senior doctors would be paid more money from January, although they would not receive it until April.
“I can only speak as I find and I had the pleasure of meeting the two leaders of the BMA junior doctors’ committee and I found them to be very constructive,” said Atkins.
“I’m not going to be able to meet some of their asks. I think they understand that,” she said. “But what I do want to look at is not just pay, but also that we value them as members of the workforce.”
Downing Street said this week that ministers would be open to “non-pay” negotiations with junior doctors in what could amount to a deal similar to that agreed with consultants. In July, the government offer of a 6% wage rise for junior doctors, plus £1,250, was rejected by unions.