Health Secretary Victoria Atkins was angered after she appeared to take issue with junior doctors – saying she liked to call them “doctors in training”.
The Tory cabinet minister raised the prospect of an improved pay and conditions offer on the second day of a 72-hour strike by junior doctors.
But Ms Atkins was accused of “insulting” junior doctors by using her own special term for the group while talking about pay deals agreed with other health service workers.
“The last group is the junior doctors – or trainee doctors, as I prefer to call them – and unfortunately, to my great dismay, they walked out of our negotiations and then called these strikes.”
Labor MP Chris Bryant immediately hit back at the health minister in X: “They are doctors. Doctors. No doctors in training.”
While junior doctors receive some clinical training while on the job, they are qualified doctors and Ms Atkins' term ‘doctors in training' is not used in the NHS.
Several commentators on social media referred to Ms Atkins' remarks as “offensive”. Professor Colin Talbot, a public policy expert at the University of Manchester, responded to X: “I'm not often at a loss for words. But “doctors in training”? Seriously?”
New Labour's head of communications Alastair Campbell called it “ridiculous” and suggested “disgust” at staff who “bear the brunt of NHS work”.
Ms Atkins also sought to highlight disagreements between junior doctor leaders at the British Medical Association (BMA) and other NHS staff – claiming some were “deeply uncomfortable” with industrial action over Christmas.
But the health secretary hinted that an offer for improved pay and conditions could be on the table if junior doctors call off industrial action.
he told the BBC breakfast that ministers and health department officials would “return to the table in 20 minutes” for talks if the strikes were called off “and then we can see how much further we can go”.
A 72-hour strike across England, which began at 7 a.m. on December 20 and running until Saturday, comes as the NHS faces one of the harshest winters on record. A six-day strike will follow from January 3.
The NHS said emergency and urgent care would be prioritized during strikes over Christmas and New Year and that “almost all” routine care would be affected.
More than 300,000 businesses and appointments are expected to be canceled during the strikes. It could push NHS waiting lists, currently at 7.7 million, over eight million for the first time, according to analysis by The times.
Hospital leaders have described the strikes as their “worst fears realised” as they face a growing number of people needing help with winter viruses, particularly norovirus.
Ms Atkins told BBC Radio 4 Today there will be “many, many doctors listening to this who feel deeply uncomfortable that their board has called these strikes at this time.”
He said consultants, nurses and other doctors would come in to do extra shifts. “The committee of junior doctors expects them to raise the grievance of their strikes,” he added.
“After three Christmases that saw our medical profession with Covid, I think we all wanted this Christmas to be as calm and restful as possible. Instead, this strike action just punches right through it.”
The BMA's junior doctors committee has challenged the government to make an offer first, so the strikes could be called off.
He said the government's offer, an average rise of 3 per cent since January – above the average of almost 9 per cent recommended by the independent pay review body in April – was not enough to offset below-inflation pay rises . 2008.
He called for full pay restoration which the government said would be equivalent to a 35% pay rise, which ministers said was unaffordable. Conciliation agency Acas said it was “ready to assist” in resolving the dispute.
Elsewhere, Ms Atkins wrote to the bodies that recommend pay rises for NHS staff to ask them to start looking at the 2024/25 pay cycle – but unions warned she had left it too late.