Junior doctors’ leaders are in last-minute talks over whether to suspend Tuesday’s 24-hour walk-out by medics.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said discussions at conciliation service Acas had made progress – and strike action in England should be called off.
An outline agreement has been put forward by ministers to the British Medical Association.
The union is now thought to be considering whether to commit to detailed talks in the coming weeks.
The strike on Tuesday, which is due to start at 0800, will see doctors cover emergency care. It is the first of three planned for this month.
Mr Hunt told the House of Commons’ hospitals had already cancelled operations ahead of the strike and NHS leaders still had to carry on making plans for a walk-out despite his hope the BMA would call it off.
Want to know more about the dispute?
- The row between junior doctors and the government is over a new contract.
- Talks broke down last year, but the dispute has escalated in recent months after ministers said they would impose the deal next summer.
- Ministers have offered doctors an 11% pay rise, but this has been offset by curbs to other elements of the pay package. including unsociable hours payments.
- The government has said the changes are need to create more seven-days services, but the BMA has warned it could lead to doctors being over-worked because safeguards to keep a lid on excessive hours are being weakened.
- A series of protests have been held across the country and 98% of BMA members who took part in the ballot backed strike action.
But he told MPs he was hopeful the breakthrough at Acas, which has been hosting talks between the two sides since Thursday, could pave the way for a solution to the dispute about a new contract.
“I am pleased to report to the House that, after working through the weekend, discussions led to a potential agreement early this afternoon between the BMA leadership and the government.”
He indicated that further talks would be needed to go through the details, but in the meantime the strike on Tuesday could be suspended.
BMA negotiators are now thought to be in discussions with union leaders about what to do – and whether the next two strikes later in the month should be suspended too.
They are planned for 8 December and 16 December, but unlike Tuesday’s walk-out doctors are not staffing emergency care.
An announcement by the BMA is expected later on Monday evening.
Mr Hunt said NHS bosses were “making every effort to minimise harm or risks caused by the strike”.
He said 20,000 operations may need to be cancelled across all three strike says. It is thought at least 4,000 that were due to take place on Tuesday have already had to be rearranged – between 10% to 15% of the total planned.
Many thousands of appointments are also thought to be affected, although hospitals are trying to ensure cancer care is not affected.