Richard North, 02/08/2004  

In my somewhat diffident analysis of the Working Time Directive yesterday, and its application to doctors, I forgot one thing – a rather important thing.

Essentially, if you load people up with a raft of stupid laws, that are impossible to apply sensibly, or at all, then they do the obvious and sensible thing – they ignore them and do whatever it takes to ensure that the job gets done.

Purists make take the view that "the law is the law" and should be obeyed, and the Charles Clovers of this world may fulminate about fishermen cheating, or farmers cheating, and so on and so forth, but then these people do not have to live in the real world.

Thus, it was extremely timely that The Daily Telegraph should publish today a case study on the effects of the WTD on doctors and, surprise, surprise, we find that, in order to get round the system, they cheat – and then lie.

On papers, therefore, the Telegraph tells us, Sarah McMahon, 28, a junior doctor at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, works less than 58 hours a week. But in reality, it is common for her to be caring for patients on the wards for 60 hours, and sometimes even 70 hours, a week.

"I support the directive", she says, "but I don't think, in practice, that it will change the lives of junior doctors,' she said. Miss McMahon said that some people lied on their forms about the hours they worked because "they know what will happen once the hospital realises it is not complying with the law".

Of course, this law-breaking is perfectly acceptable morally, as the Herald survey yesterday indicated, but somehow not all people seem to be able to see that virtually everyone in business these days has to adopt the same stratagems in order to survive.

Thus, slowly and insidiously, we are turning into a society where the law is an à la carte menu. We do what we have to do, and then get away with what we can. In other words, we are all Europeans now.

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