Junior doctors must suspend all strikes for the Government to consider entering talks facilitated by conciliation service Acas in a bid to end the bitter pay dispute, a minister has suggested.
Acas has said it is “well prepared and ready to help” and the British Medical Association (BMA) is urging ministers to get round the table to try to break the deadlock between the parties.
But Home Office minister Chris Philp said the junior doctors committee should halt “extremely damaging strike action” in order for discussions take place.
He was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Why not just say yes, in a strike where lives are at stake… yes to Acas? It’s not something that involves you having to agree to anything. It’s a process, it’s a discussion.”
Mr Philp replied: “Well, that’s a very recent change in position. That wasn’t the junior doctors committee’s position until very, very recently. I think it would also be constructive if they would just suspend the strikes while talks take place.
“If they’re willing to do that, then I think the Secretary of State’s door is very much open.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it remains open to considering a role for Acas but reiterated talks cannot take place until junior doctors drop their demand for a 35% pay increase and end the strike.
“But our position remains that the junior doctors council needs to significantly reduce its demand for a 35% pay increase and pause action for formal talks to begin and that will not change.”
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said: “When it comes to pressures in the NHS, we understand that people are working very hard, we understand that people have had pay rises that have not matched inflation.
“And that’s why we’ve introduced cost-of-living payments of around £3,000 for the average household up and down the country, nearly £100 billion of support.
“The one thing we won’t do, because it would be a terrible mistake, is to agree to an inflationary pay rise that means that we’re still talking about inflation in a year’s time.”
It comes as around 47,000 junior doctors stage a third day of strike action in England.
Chairman of the BMA council, Professor Philip Banfield, said: “In the face of a constant refusal from the Health Secretary to agree to further talks and put forward a credible offer which could bring an end to the dispute, we believe that working with Acas provides the most realistic chance of a successful outcome to the negotiations.
“The BMA has no preconditions to talks and has consistently sought to negotiate with the Government.
“It takes both sides of a dispute to want to find a solution, and we urge the Health Secretary to show the same willingness that we have and make himself available and open to talks facilitated by Acas.”
Hospital bosses have expressed concern about keeping patients safe as they struggle to secure cover for overnight junior doctor shifts during strikes.
The health service’s top doctor, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, has warned that the situation in the NHS will “become more challenging each day this strike progresses”.
This means hundreds of thousands of appointments and operations have been rescheduled as a result.
The BMA has claimed junior doctors in England have seen a 26% real-terms pay cut since 2008/09 because pay rises have been below inflation.
The union has asked for a full pay restoration that the Government said would amount to a 35% pay rise – which ministers have said is unaffordable.
BMA officials said the pay issue is making it harder to recruit and retain junior doctors, with members previously walking out for three days in March.