The union representing junior doctors has appealed to Acas to settle the increasingly bitter dispute with the government over pay and conditions.
On the second day of the four-day NHS strike, the British Medical Association challenged ministers to agree to allow the official arbitration service to broker negotiations and break the deadlock.
Rishi Sunak insisted the government is “keen” to “get round the table” and negotiate with union leaders but ministers have so far refused to engage with the BMA’s opening demand of a 35 per cent pay rise.
BMA chair of council Professor Philip Banfield said its leaders had confirmed to Acas their willingness to enter talks with the government with the help of the arbitrators.
Acas said its expert team stood ready to help with negotiations. However, both sides in the dispute need to agree to the involvement of Acas. The Department of Health has declined to say whether it would consent to the move.
Downing Street said on Tuesday the BMA needed to call off the strike and drop its headline demand of 35 per cent.
However the BMA said it had no preconditions for talks with Health Secretary Steve Barclay or any other government representatives, and indicated it is willing to negotiate on that starting figure.
Prof 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.
“We have always said we will get round the table for talks with Mr Barclay any time; a credible offer from him could result in strike action being called off, but despite months of trying, he remains seemingly intransigent and inflexible to all our attempts to reach a settlement.
“The BMA has no preconditions to talks and has consistently sought to negotiate with the Government. Restoring junior doctors’ pay should not be an unworkable proposition for talks and through the services of Acas, we’re offering the Government an opportunity to discuss how we get there.
“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.”
In an interview with broadcasters earlier, the Prime Minister was asked about a report in i that a new starting point for negotiation of 17-19 per cent would be enough to get ministers to the table.
Mr Sunak replied: “What I am focused on is making sure we get the right outcome for patients and taxpayers. I think the government’s got a track record in showing that it can get round the table and find reasonable compromise and a way through these difficult situations as we’ve already done with several other health unions that represent over a million NHS workers including nurses and paramedics that’s what we’ve already done and we’ve done that in other sectors too.
“We are keen to find accommodation, we are happy to talk about pay settlements that are reasonable, that are fair, that are affordable for the taxpayer and allow us to continue delivering on our promise to halve inflation, because ultimately that’s what we all need to do to ease the burdens on the cost of living, that’s what the government is committed to delivering.”
The PM also said he was “surprised” to read that one of the leaders of the striking doctors, Dr Rob Laurenson, has taken a week’s holiday during the four-day walkout.
Prof Banfield earlier told Times Radio it was a “misleading assumption” that the 35 per cent figure “cannot be discussed within a negotiation”, adding: “What they’re saying is the figures show that this is what the value has been lost in our wages across that period of time.”
Susan Clews, chief executive of Acas, said: “We have a team of experts who are well prepared and ready to help. Acas has decades of experience in resolving disputes and we helped the various parties involved in the 2016 junior doctors dispute.
“Acas’s collective conciliation service is impartial and independent. It is also voluntary, which means we only get involved in a dispute if all the parties in dispute agree to conciliation.”