Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Eurosceptic’s dilemma

With rather less enthusiasm than we tackled the WTO, agreement, we have decided that we should also have a look at the EU’s Working Time Directive which comes into force today for doctors. I have drawn the short straw. (Helen can do Palestine, so I suppose that's fair.)

Nevertheless, the issue is a difficult one for Eurosceptics. On the one hand, there is the visceral feeling that the EU should not interfere with the employment arrangements between health trusts and their medial staff; on the other, one can recognise that the issue of over-worked junior doctors is a perennial that has had the media fulminating in the past, as they have highlighted the risk of serious tired doctors making possibly fatal mistakes.

Now, it seems we are to swap problem for a whole raft of others. With the new limitation of 58 hours to apply, we will now longer have seriously tired doctors but, it seems, in some specialities we will have no doctors at all – as health trusts have been unable to recruit sufficient numbers to make up the gaps in their rotas – while there are some fears that with the shortened hours, doctors may not gain sufficient expertise by the time they are of an age to qualify as consultants, and we may suffer in the future from under-qualified doctors.

Looking at the issue in the round, therefore, it seems that all the WTD has to offer us in an exchange of problems, which is hardly a good deal, plus considerable expense to the ever-burdened taxpayer, for a matter that could, perhaps have been handled more sensitively at national level.

That is probably the best response to the Europhile who claims the WTD as a benefit of our membership of the EU. Had the government seen fit to deal with the problem, it did not need the EU to tell it what to do. By and large, it would not even have needed legislation, as the government itself is the biggest employer of doctors.

The ultimate irony is that the WTD need not have applied at all. It is part of the Social Chapter, from which Major excluded the UK during the Maastricht negotiations, and which Blair adopted when he came to power in 1997. If we subsequently have problems with the directive, therefore, we can hardly blame the EU. This one is definitely down to Blair. As always, however, it is us that will pay the price.

Interestingly, in an online poll in the Sunday Herald today, asking whether doctors should break the law in order to save lives, 85 percent of respondents said "yes". When health trusts are fined for employing doctors in excess of their now statutory maximum hours - or patients die because of a shortage of medical staff - it will be interesting to see the public reaction, and who they choose to blame.

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