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Comment on European Working Time Directive discussions

21 Dec 2017

In recent days a number of newspapers have reported that cabinet ministers are discussing whether the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) should continue to apply following Brexit. On Monday the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the Government would ‘maintain, and indeed enhance, workers’ rights. This morning, the Guardian are reporting that the BMA have urged Theresa May to stand firm against Brexiters who want to scrap European laws, warning of risks to patient safety.

In 2013 the Government commissioned a taskforce, chaired by a past RCS President Professor Sir Norman Williams, to review the impact of the EWTD on the NHS. The taskforce found that it has had a profound effect on the training of junior staff, the working lives of consultants and patient care in the UK. The Directive was found to have reduced fatigue for doctors but its inflexibility was found to be undermining the training of doctors in specialties where hands-on training time is required. The Taskforce included representatives from the BMA, junior doctors, NHS organisations, Health Education England, lay representation, and other medical bodies such as the Royal College of Physicians.

In a survey of 1,200 UK surgical trainees 71% felt EU working time rules had negatively impacted their training. In July 2016 the Association of Surgeons in Training suggested that the EWTD should be slightly relaxed to a maximum of 56 hours a week for surgeons with any extra time spent purely on training.

A RCS spokesperson said:

“Under no circumstances would anyone support a return to a culture of long working hours. Nevertheless, the Independent Working Time Regulations Taskforce found that the European Working Time Directive has had a detrimental impact on the training of many doctors and the continuity of patient care. By limiting the amount of hours someone can train and creating inflexible shift working patterns, we have undermined the ability of doctors to receive high quality education and training in the UK. This is compounded by the increasingly significant requirements that under pressure hospitals place on young doctors to run wards on a day-to-day basis alongside their training. As a result, many junior doctors have to regularly work longer hours on a voluntary basis – which speaks volumes for the dedication of trainees but is an untenable situation in a modern NHS.  

“The Working Time Directive had honourable aims but has become an inflexible straightjacket that desperately needs reform. We urge the Government to consider, post-Brexit, how we can strengthen and enhance working rules in the NHS. They should reconsider the Taskforce’s recommendations, including the potential for separating education and working time and maintaining an individual’s ability to opt-out of working limits.

“The EWTD is, of course, just one of the problems with medical training in this country and further action is necessary to safeguard the future of our medical workforce. We believe that a highly trained medical workforce, given the protected time to learn all the necessary skills for such a demanding job as medicine, is a good investment for patients.” 

Notes to editors

The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.

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