Anyone should be delighted at having to work less. But the president of the UK's surgeons body is warning that a 48-hour cap per week could prove detrimental to both doctors and patients.
From August, the European Working Time Directive stipulating the cap for all healthcare staff, including surgeons, comes into force. Hospitals found violating the rule face heavy fines. But many hospitals are protesting they are in no position to shift to the new schedule.
AdvertisementJohn Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, has said the new rules are "an impending disaster" which will "devastate" medical training because no surgeon will be able to work a shift long enough to gain proper experience.
The multiple handovers of staff needed to comply with the rules will mean that patients do not see the same doctor for more than a few hours, he said in the February newsletter of the surgeons' body.
And he warned there could be "dangerous" lapses in patient care, especially at night.
The European Working Time Directive has proved a massive challenge for the NHS since it was introduced in 1998.
At first, certain staff were exempt, but a 58-hour limit was introduced in 2004, falling to 56 in 2007 with the final drop to 48 required by August 2009.
With time running out to make the changes to rotas needed, a survey of hospital trusts in November last year found that only 18% were hitting the 48 hour limit.
"With nobody able to work more than 48 hours a week from August, the effects on patient care in the NHS are potentially disastrous," Mr Black said.
"Out-of-hours cover will be so thin, on occasions non-existent, that major service failure with unplanned reconfiguration of services appears inevitable.
"It is well known that dangerous incidents are far more likely to happen at night and weekends, and this will get worse with even fewer doctors available.
"This is not to mention the dangers of multiple handovers or the frustration and alarm felt by patients who rarely see the same doctor for more than a few hours. This is all being done under social chapter legislation, supposed to make people's lives better."
Mr Black is meeting Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, in February to propose a "speciality opt-out" and an upper limit on surgeons' hours of 65 to 70 hours a week.
"I have no doubt we will be told that it is impossible to alter or bypass the European law. I do not believe this. All manner of EC law must have been bent or ignored in nationalising a bank in 24 hours. The Government can do it if it has the political will," Mr Black said.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "A few hospitals have implemented the maximum 48 hour week across all rotas. We are monitoring the situation as some smaller specialities and isolated hospitals may find meeting the deadline more challenging."
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