EWTD rules could be changed

HIGH-LEVEL negotiations are underway that could lead to changes to the European Working Time Directive, including the way in which on-call time is counted and rest periods are enforced.

Employers’ groups including the NHS Confederation and the Royal College of Nursing as well as unions representing employees are taking part in a fresh round of discussions with the European Commission (EC). The move follows an EC consultation last year that highlighted an “urgent need” for changes to the way the EWTD is currently enforced.

On-call time, the timing of minimum rest periods, excessive working hours, and the ability to opt out of the directive are key issues up for negotiation in this set of talks, according to a report in BMJ Careers.

The NHS Confederation’s European Office has called for “urgent and common sense” changes to be made to the directive.

The EWTD came into force in the UK in August 2009 and limited the average working week to 48 hours, set a maximum working period of 13 hours, a maximum working and a minimum of one rest day a week.

Two European Court of Justice decisions known as the SIMAP-Jaeger rulings stipulate that time spent on call, either on site or at home, counts towards the 48 hour limit in the directive, irrespective of whether or not any work is actually done during the on call period. The court has also ruled that compensatory rest must be taken immediately after the end of the working period.

The rules have been criticised by medical organisations who say they have adversely affected the amount of training time available to junior doctors and caused rota gaps. The Royal College of Surgeons has argued that surgical trainees have been particularly badly affected by the EWTD because it does not allow them enough time to acquire skills that can only be built-up through repetition.

The new talks offer an opportunity to find a balance between the need for workers to have adequate rest and the need for flexibility in how the working time rules are implemented on the ground, the NHS Confederation has said.

“It is in no one’s interest to have overworked, tired doctors,” said Elisabetta Zanon, director of the NHS Confederation’s European Office. “Politicians have tried and failed so far to find a sensible solution, and these negotiations provide an opportunity for people who are in touch with the issues on a daily basis to reach a common sense agreement.”

The Royal College of Surgeons has also welcomed the new talks and said it hoped for up to 65 hours of working time a week to allow for “high quality clinician training and patient care”. BMA Junior Doctors Committee chair Dr Tom Dolphin said that while some flexibility was needed, legislation must take account of “human tiredness”.

Talks with the EC will run until September 2012 and, if an agreement is reached, a request for legislative changes to the EWTD can be made.

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