- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

LONDON (AP) - Britain’s health secretary has taken the unusual step of opting to impose a new contract on junior doctors after failing to strike a deal with thousands of medical professionals in England.

Jeremy Hunt’s decision Thursday comes after the junior doctors rejected the Conservative government’s final offer. He said the government was motivated by concerns that the National Health Service’s standard of care on the weekends was “too low.”

“Patients suffer when governments drag their feet on high hospital mortality rates, and this government is determined our NHS should offer the safest, highest quality care in the world,” Hunt said.

The dispute between the government and junior doctors - those who are in training but may have up to 10 years of experience - has escalated in recent months. Thousands have gone on strike to protest plans to change pay and work schedules.

The dispute has caused consternation among the British public, which considers the health care to be a fundamental right. The NHS is a matter of national pride - although its shortcomings are widely scrutinized and discussed. The government has struggled, however, to meet escalating health care costs in a time of austerity.

Outraged at Hunt’s decision, the British Medical Association pledged to consider all options - suggesting further strikes or even legal action. Dr. Johann Malawana said an entire generation of doctors will be alienated by the government’s handling of the dispute.

“There’s a real risk that some will vote with their feet,” said Malawana, the junior doctor committee chairman at the BMA. “Our message to the government is clear: Junior doctors cannot and will not accept a contract that is bad for the future of patient care, the profession, and the NHS as a whole. And we will consider all options open to us.”

The new contract takes effect in August.

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