The leaders of 12 royal colleges and trade unions have written to the prime minister urging caution against removing working time regulations from law following Brexit.
They said their letter to Theresa May was sparked by reports that there is support within the UK government for the removal of the working time regulations, which fall under European Union law.
“Removing or weakening working time regulations would put patients at serious risk”
The European Working Time Directive, introduced in 1998 for most workers, including nurses, entitles staff to a working week that averages a maximum of 48 hours, unless they have signed an “opt-out” clause. However, it was phased in for junior doctors between 2004 and 2009.
The director also covers breaks and holidays, such as 11 hours rest a day and a right to a day off each week, the right to a rest break if the working day is longer than six hours and 5.6 weeks paid leave each year.
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Earlier this week, the prime minister dismissed claims that the government was planning to scrap the directive, insisting she intended to “not only maintain but also enhance workers’ rights”.
She was responding to reports that Michael Gove and other pro-Brexit MPs wanted to return such powers to employers and to give staff the opportunity to do more overtime and make extra money.
But, in their letter to Ms May, the signatories stressed that the regulations protected clinical staff from the “dangers of overwork whilst protecting patients from overtired doctors and nurses”.
It echoes a previous warning in June that the directive would cease to apply if the UK left the EU and did not subsequently join the European single market.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, 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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, warned that the working time regulations were “there to protect patients”.
“Nurses are driven to do the best they can for their patients, but however dedicated, clinical staff overtired from working excessive hours could become a risk to the very people they are trying to treat,” she said.
“Working time regulations put an end to the excessive hours of the past, and in doing so made care safer,” said Ms Davies.
She added: “It should be clear to the government that removing or weakening working time regulations would put patients at serious risk.”
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.