Juniors leaders have insisted that laws on trainee working hours must not be scrapped but have suggested some flexibility could be introduced.
They were reacting to a Lords discussion about European negotiations on revising the rules governing the average 48-hour working week for doctors.
Health minister Earl Howe was asked by peers whether the EWTD (European Working Time Directive) as it currently operated was detrimental to patient care and doctors’ training.
He said there was shared concern among EU member states about the inflexibility of rulings relating to on-call time and compensatory rest.
Earl Howe said: ‘No one wants or deserves to be treated by tired doctors. There is a balance to be struck.
‘The inflexibilities in the directive need to be addressed, but we should not go back to the bad old days when doctors became too tired to do their work.’
Lord Kakkar of Loxbeare, a London professor of surgery, asked the minister whether the government collected data on the number of patients harmed as a result of the directive.
Earl Howe said it was the job of individual NHS trusts to ensure rotas were compliant with the EWTD, and an assessment in January 2010 had shown 99 per cent of rotas were compliant.
Speaking after the discussion, BMA junior doctors committee chair Ben Molyneux said working time legislation had been debated by the JDC many times because the committee was aware of the diversity of opinion on the issue.
He said: ‘Tired doctors make mistakes, and we must think of the welfare of doctors and the resultant impact fatigue can have on patient care.
‘There is a mounting body of evidence to support the move to reduced working hours in terms of patient safety. While flexibility may be appropriate, scrapping the [EWTD] is not.'
Negotiations on the directive are being conducted with EU social partners, which include European-level employer and trade union organisations, until the end of this year.