The Health Secretary has spoken of her “respect” for striking junior doctors ahead of fresh pay talks.
Victoria Atkins struck a conciliatory tone, saying she wants to build a “new relationship” with the British Medical Association (BMA) after her appointment less than three weeks ago.
Her language has proved markedly different to her predecessor Steve Barclay, who referred to the BMA as having a politically “militant stance”.
Ms Atkins, in an interview with The Times, said junior doctors “understand” the Government is “not going to be able to meet some of their asks” but she is entering discussions with a “constructive frame of mind”.
It comes after she this week agreed a deal with consultants in England to potentially end a long and bitter dispute over pay.
The deal on the table, set to be put to union members, will see the country’s top doctors earn more money from January, although it will not be paid until April.
The junior doctors’ dispute remains unresolved, however. Their opening gambit was for a 35% pay rise.
During the summer, the Government said junior doctors would receive a 6% wage rise plus £1,250, in line with recommendations from independent pay review bodies, but it was not enough to satisfy unions.
Ms Atkins refused to echo Mr Barclay’s labelling of the BMA as “militant”.
She said: “I can only speak as I find and I had the pleasure of meeting the two leaders of the BMA junior doctors’ committee and I found them to be very constructive.
“I’m not going to be able to meet some of their asks. I think they understand that.
“But what I do want to look at is not just pay, but also that we value them as members of the workforce.
“Of course I respect junior doctors. I have admiration for our doctors but also nurses and our volunteers.”
There is said to be an acceptance among ministers that without breakthroughs in the health sector strikes deadlock, there is little chance of delivering on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to cut NHS waiting lists before a likely general election next year.
NHS trusts are also footing the bill to bring in expensive locums to cover the strikes, which have been going on for a year.
Downing Street said this week that ministers will be open to “non-pay” negotiations with junior doctors in what could amount to a deal similar to that agreed with consultants.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Monday: “Certainly our offer to junior doctors is the same as to consultants.
“While headline pay was a settled issue, we are more than happy to discuss non-pay issues.”
The efforts to resolve the strikes in the NHS comes as Labour set out plans for GP hubs, where patients can access weekend and evening walk-in appointments.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the Opposition party plans, if it wins the next election, to install in every part of the country neighbourhood health centres that bring together a wide range of services, including doctors, dentists and treatment of minor injuries.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting tweeted: “Labour’s mission is to get our NHS back on its feet and fit for the future — a neighbourhood health service that gets to patients faster, treats them quicker and prevents ill-health.”