LONDON - The Department of Health has reassured the Board of Deputies of British Jews that the government's plans to encourage doctors to open clinics in the evenings or on weekends will not infringe on Jewish doctors' religious rights to refrain from working on Shabbat. In a detailed letter to Board of Deputies president Henry Grunwald this week, Minister of State for Health Services Ben Bradshaw explicitly stated the government's position regarding Shabbat observance. "I can assure you that under our proposals to extend general practitioners' hours, no Jewish doctor would be expected or obligated to break Shabbat laws," the minister said. "In fact, no individual GP will be under compulsion to work on Saturday." Grunwald welcomed the government's response, saying it was "a most welcome outcome." "This is a clear example of the important work that the Board of Deputies carries out on a daily basis," he said. "We are proud to have played such a constructive role here." Grunwald had written to Health Minister Alan Johnson seeking reassurance that under the government's proposed reforms to family health care, Jewish doctors would neither be expected nor obligated to work on Shabbat. Citing an e-mail from a doctor who expressed concern that any requirement to perform non-emergency work on Shabbat would amount to an actionable form of religious discrimination, Grunwald said that the Board of Deputies had received several similar queries from community members. In his response to the Board of Deputies, Bradshaw sought to further reassure Jewish doctors that the proposal to extend clinic hours into the evening and weekends would spell out Shabbat exemptions in greater detail when it issued legislation addressing community-based health services later in the year. "Religious and cultural sensibilities and the safety and security of doctors, practice staff and patients will be made clear in our guidance support and the new arrangements," Bradshaw said. "Where all the doctors at the practice are Jewish, or where a Jewish doctor works single-handedly, it would be entirely possible for the practice not to offer Saturday opening [hours], but offer additional weekday evening opening [hours] instead." The government's response was welcomed by Jewish medical experts. "This is a very welcome development," said Prof. David Katz, vice-chair of the Board's Defense and Group Relations Committee and chairman of the Jewish Medical Association. "Traditionally, all Jewish doctors in the UK have had to balance their religious outlook with their obligation to fulfil the mitzva of pikuah nefesh, which takes precedence even over the Shabbat laws. "However, the question raised here was different: whether, despite valid and acceptable conscientious objections, observant Jewish doctors were to be obligated, on administrative and managerial grounds, to undertake more general tasks on Saturdays, which would infringe these Shabbat laws," he added. "Mr. Bradshaw's comments are much appreciated and very reassuring, offering scope for flexibility that is consistent with our laws and customs."