Health leaders warn against removal of Working Time Regulations

Following reports that there is support within government for the removal of the Working Time Regulations (WTR), the British Medical Association, alongside 12 royal colleges and trade unions, has today written to the Prime Minister urging caution against removing them from law following Brexit.

In a letter to Theresa May, the BMA’s chair of council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, and the other signatories, stress that the Working Time Regulations protects medical staff from the dangers of overwork whilst protecting patients from overtired doctors and nurses.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said:

“The Working Time Regulations are not only vital for the wellbeing of staff but also because, as medical professionals, the safety of our patients is our number one priority. We can all agree that no one wants a return to the days where doctors and nurses were working 90 hour weeks – it would be bad for patient safety, bad for staff and bad for the NHS.

“With unprecedented staff shortages and pressure currently facing the health service, it is crucial that doctors’, nurses and midwives’ concerns over unsafe working conditions are heard.”

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Prime Minister,

As the representatives of doctors, nursing staff and midwives in the UK, we are deeply concerned by reports that there is support within government for the removal of the Working Time Regulations (WTR) from UK law following the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Dealing with and preventing the effects of excessive working is crucial not only because of the impact on individuals and their families, but also because of the wider consequences it poses to patient safety.

Twenty-five years ago, the phenomenon of health professionals working 90 hour weeks, and the attendant risks this posed, was all too common in the NHS. The worst excesses of these working arrangements were only curtailed following the arrival of EU-derived legislation limiting hours in the form of the WTR.

It is not in the interests of either staff or patients to relax or move away from the safeguarding protections introduced by the WTR, namely the limit of an average 48 hour working week, rest breaks and statutory paid leave, especially when there is, of course, the existing option for all workers to voluntarily opt out of these regulations.

Even with these regulations, we know that fatigue caused by excessive overwork remains an occupational hazard for many staff across the NHS, with tragic and not uncommon reports of road accidents after falling asleep at the wheel.

With health and care services under more pressure than ever before, and staff being called upon to work ever longer hours, what is needed is proper resourcing and investment to increase our workforce, not the removal of safeguards. We noted the commitment in your speech to the Conservative Party Conference, and in recent days, that not only would existing workers’ legal rights be guaranteed in law, but that they would be enhanced under your Government. We urge you not to renege on this commitment: Brexit must not be used as an excuse to overwork any staff group.

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