Doctors Chief Quits Over Training Fiasco

The chairman of the British Medical Association, James Johnson, resigned suddenly last night over accusations that he was siding with the government in the debacle over training jobs for junior doctors. Mr Johnson said the criticism of him had “got very nasty” and he felt he had lost the confidence of some of his colleagues.

His decision to quit made him the highest profile casualty so far in the increasingly heated row between ministers and doctors, which has seen white-coat protest marches in Whitehall and an apology for the fiasco by the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt.

She will be under fresh pressure this week when there is a judicial review into the legality of the new online application scheme that is at the heart of the controversy.

Juniors were outraged by the unfairness of the system which failed to select the best applicants for jobs and threatened, the juniors say, to wreck the careers of thousands who would be left without a place on the training ladder to become a consultant.

Mr Johnson has fallen on his sword because of a letter he wrote to a newspaper last week jointly with Carol Black, president of the Academy of Medical Colleges. In it, he defended the government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, who had pioneered the principles underlying the reform programme.

“It would be a far-reaching shame if those principles were obscured by recent problems with the online application system,” they wrote.

Mr Johnson told the Guardian that he was quitting because he did not want to damage the BMA. “I appear to have lost the confidence of my council largely over a letter … expressing some support for the chief medical officer, who is being blamed for what has happened. He isn’t entitled to answer back or apologise for his ministers’ policies,” Mr Johnson said.

Sir Liam, he said, is a member of the BMA and a colleague.

David Pickersgill, treasurer of the BMA, suggested the letter did not appear to give sufficient backing to the junior doctors. “The letter referred to the current problems over the government’s mishandling of the appointment system for junior doctors, known as MTAS,” he said in a statement.

“While it reflected the association’s agreed position of working towards a pragmatic solution for this year, its tone failed to reflect the anger being currently expressed by members of the association, particularly junior doctors. It was felt to be insufficiently sensitive and has led to a loss of confidence in the chairman.”

The BMA has been increasingly criticised by the juniors and their supporters for failing to take a radical enough stance on the issue.

Last week the government was taken to court by Remedy UK, a group set up by junior doctors to fight their cause, while the BMA continued to argue that negotiation was better than legal action.

Mr Johnson said he was surprised at the vehemence of the reaction against him, which “has really got very nasty”. He thought the attacks on him were designed “to take people’s attention from the fact that they have lost their case. They were calling for the whole thing to be scrapped and started again. They have withdrawn that argument”.

Remedy UK says it has changed its argument in the last couple of weeks only because it recognises that it is now too late to scrap the entire system.

“A month to a month-and-a-half ago we thought abandonment may have been viable,” said Matthew Shaw, co-founder of Remedy UK. A decision on the judicial review is expected on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson said at least a third of the BMA’s council was against him, although not the leaders of the individual craft committees. “But I think they are all incredibly nervous about the effect the Remedy situation is having on the BMA,” he said.

He said that Remedy UK was “very good at whipping up anger but they have no solution at all … There are 30,000 doctors who need jobs and it is our job to get as many as possible into them as quickly as possible”.

He added that the profession as a whole was extremely angry – not just over junior doctors but also over the bad publicity they have received over their pay, and particularly GPs’ pay, and also over government changes to the health service.

Mr Johnson, a vascular surgeon in the north-west, will officially leave the job on Thursday after four years as chairman. An interim chairman will be appointed pending the meeting.

Dr Shaw of Remedy UK said: “The bottom line is that a lot of people don’t think the BMA have been tremendously representative in their views.”

But he added: “It is in no one’s interest to have a weak BMA.”