Junior doctors have accused the Health Secretary of using “scare tactics” in a bid to block their legal challenge against his decision to impose a new contract on them.
Campaign group Justice for Health, which was founded by junior doctors, is seeking a High Court judicial review.
They say the contract for junior doctors working in the NHS in England is “unsafe and unsustainable”.
The five founding members of Justice for Health – Dr Nadia Masood, Dr Ben White, Dr Francesca Silman, Dr Amar Mashru and Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh – were outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London with their mouths gagged with tape prior to a case management hearing before Mr Justice Green.
They said they were protesting against an attempt by Jeremy Hunt to price them out of court by seeking a court order requiring them to pay an “astronomical” £150,000 costs protection deposit. They say that, if the order is made, they could forfeit that sum if they lose their legal action.
Dr Mashru, an A&E doctor from south London, said: “Our message is about the fact junior doctors are facing an attempt to gag them and prevent them from speaking out against the actions of Mr Hunt.
“We are asking in court for him to be made accountable for the decisions he has made and the way he has handled this dispute.
“There has now been a last-minute decision to ask us to provide a £150,000 costs protection deposit. Before that the sum was £30,000.
“Mr Hunt has intentionally fixed on an astronomical figure in the hope we won’t be able to raise it and therefore won’t be able to proceed with our case.
“It is a scare tactic. It is intimidation.”
Justice for Health’s application for a judicial review is being aided by donations from thousands of members of the public via crowdfunding website Crowd Justice.
The junior doctors’ dispute led to the first full walkout strikes of their kind in British history.
Junior doctors rejected the latest contract offer put to a referendum by the British Medical Association (BMA) in June.
The Health Secretary decided for a second time to impose the contract, leaving junior doctors complaining that their concerns that it was “unsafe and unsustainable” had been ignored.
When he made his decision, Mr Hunt said it had been “difficult ” to take but the NHS needed certainty, including in light of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
He made it after junior doctors and medical students rejected a contract brokered between the BMA and the Government, with 58% voting against the deal while 42% voted in favour.
Some 68% of those eligible turned out to vote – around 37,000 junior doctors and medical students.
In a Commons statement, Mr Hunt said: “In May, the Government and NHS Employers reached an historic agreement with the BMA on a new contract for junior doctors after three years of negotiations and several days of damaging strike action.”
He said the contract was seen as a good deal by Dr Johann Malawana, who was then chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee, and was endorsed by royal medical colleges.
He added: “Unfortunately, because of the vote, we are now left in a no-man’s land that, if it continues, can only damage the NHS.”
Mr Hunt said the “only realistic way to end this impasse” is to bring in the contract that was agreed with the BMA in May, with the phasing-in starting in October.
Under the proposed deal, Saturdays and Sundays would attract premium pay if doctors – the vast majority of whom are expected to – work seven or more weekends in a year.
Doctors would receive a percentage of their annual salary for working these weekends – ranging from 3% for working one weekend in seven to up to 10% if they work one weekend in two.
Any night shift would also result in an enhanced pay rate of 37% for all the hours worked.
The deal also set out payment for doctors who are on call, and agreed a basic pay increase of between 10% and 11%.