Limits on working hours may be relaxed after Brexit, warns employment expert

Authors: Anne Gulland 

Publication date:  02 Oct 2017

Legal protections ensuring that doctors do not breach limits on safe working hours could be eroded after the UK leaves the European Union, an employment expert has warned.

Jason Heyes, professor of employment relations at Sheffield University, told a meeting discussing Brexit’s effect on healthcare that the European Union’s working time regulations, which ensure that doctors do not work for more than an average of 48 hours a week and guarantee rights such as rest breaks and holidays, might be targeted by a Conservative government when the UK leaves the EU.

“Once UK policy makers have the ability to start tinkering with working time regulations they will start doing so,” he told the meeting, organised by the Royal Society of Medicine’s trainees’ section.

He later told The BMJ that ever since the working time directive was incorporated into UK law in 1998 it had been a target of the Conservatives. “For many years the Conservative Party has been critical of the working time regulations, and the right wing of the party has been implacably opposed to them,” he said.

The Conservatives’ criticism is shared by some royal medical colleges, which believe that the regulations restrict the amount of time available for training of doctors. Doctors can opt out of the 48 hour limit, and a Royal College of Surgeons review of the regulations called for more widespread use of this.[1] The UK is one of the few EU countries to use the opt out.

Heyes said that opposition from the government and from some within the NHS could combine to bring a weakening of the rules. He said, “My suspicion is that once they are no longer obliged to respect EU labour laws, and particularly given the resource constraint in the NHS, the working time regulations are going to be something that the government looks at.”

However, Jeeves Wijesuriya, chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee, told the meeting that the BMA would oppose any attempt to water down employment protections. “We cannot allow the working time regulations to be eroded in any way, shape, or form for our workforce, because the results would be catastrophic,” he said. He added that junior doctors opposed the government’s new contract for them last year largely because of concerns over safety. “If we do not have limits on hours and protected rest periods after long on-calls, it’s not just doctors who will be at risk but the patients we care for,” Wijesuriya said.

Mark Dayan, policy and public affairs analyst at the health policy think tank the Nuffield Trust, told the meeting that any attempt to “sweat the [NHS’s] existing assets harder” was unlikely to be successful. “When you’re trying to get staff to work in a service where one of the major disincentives is that it’s a pressured place to work, guaranteeing 100 hour weeks is not the recruiting sergeant you need,” he said.

He said that Brexit was already generating a recruitment crisis, particularly among nursing and social care staff. Stepping up domestic training to fill staffing gaps was one solution to the crisis, he proposed.

Dayan added, “Every year Health Education England says it must raise GP recruitment, but it’s very difficult to funnel people into the profession you want when you want.

“The government has been using free movement of labour [across the EU] to paper over the cracks in the workforce, but once that paper is stripped away we’ll be faced with decades of structural failure to train staff.”


  1. Royal College of Surgeons of England. The implementation of the working time directive, and its impact on the NHS and health professionals. 2014. [Link] .

Anne Gulland London

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: