As the NHS comes under increasing pressure from the swine flu pandemic, campaigners want the government to suspend an EU ruling stating that doctors can only work 48 hours a week.
Doctors' pressure group RemedyUK wants special measures to bypass the reduction in a working week from 56 to 48 hours, which begins for junior doctors on Saturday. Other doctors have been working under the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) for some time.
Individual doctors can opt out and decide to work longer, but there are calls for entire departments to be able to opt out. And if things get worse, the Royal College of Surgeons has called on the government to suspend the EWTD.
In the meantime, a Department of Health spokesperson said that doctors and other healthcare staff can choose to work longer hours when they need to. "During national emergencies there are special provisions and flexibility within the regulations for emergency situations," the spokesperson said.
"Medical directors have plans in place to ensure NHS organisations are able meet the needs of patients and that the hours doctors and other healthcare staff work are balanced over a period. Medical directors will carefully review the local situation as the current pandemic flu outbreak continues."
Health Protection Agency (HPA) figures show that swine flu is diagnosed around 100,000 times a week in England, although Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been less affected by the virus.
Copyright © Press Association 2009
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"So we go back to overtired drs and increase the risk that they will miss something really serious, like early meningitis, do we? That sounds like a good idea. Since being overtired is one very good way to become debilitated and increases the risk of contracting whatever the latest bug is doing the rounds, does the press want more sick drs? I would not want either my family or I to be treated by an overtired, ill dr. The press need to realise that drs are human too and have just as many rights as the patient, ie, not to be exposed to unecessary risks, to have time off to see their families and have a life etc" – Name and address withheld