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Doctors to take industrial action over pensions in June

Authors: Helen Jaques 

Publication date:  31 May 2012


Doctors in the United Kingdom are to take industrial action for the first time in nearly 40 years after the majority voted in favour of action to defend their pensions.

Doctors will provide urgent and emergency care only and postpone all non-urgent cases for 24 hours on 21 June, with the possibility of further action once the impact of the first day has been assessed.

Doctors are disputing government plans to increase the amount they need to pay into their pension, abolish final salary pensions in favour of a career average scheme, and increase the normal pension age in line with state retirement age.

The BMA argues that the NHS pension scheme was made fair and affordable during reform in 2008 and provides a surplus to the treasury of £2bn a year.

“The government’s unnecessary wholesale changes to the recently reformed NHS pension scheme cannot be justified,” said Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA. “The government has effectively torn up a fair, sustainable, and affordable deal on NHS pensions reached only four years ago and has refused to negotiate seriously on any further changes.”

In a ballot held by the BMA all groups of doctors bar occupational medicine doctors voted in favour of both taking industrial action short of a strike and taking full strike action, with an overall turnout of more than 50% of the 104 544 doctors eligible to vote.

The ballot asked doctors two questions: whether they were willing to take part in industrial action short of a strike, and whether they were willing to take part in a strike. The BMA has emphasised that doctors will not be asked to completely withdraw their labour and that it asked the two questions in order to provide maximum legal protection for any action.

Around two thirds of general practitioners; consultants; junior doctors; staff, associate specialist, and specialty doctors; and public health and community health doctors answered “yes” to both questions, with turnout at least 50% for each of these groups bar junior doctors (turnout 39.51%), which the BMA says provides a “clear mandate for action.”

Results of the BMA’s ballot on industrial action over pensions

Turnout Question 1: Are you prepared to take part in industrial action short of a strike? Question 2: Are you prepared to take part in a strike?
Total no of valid votes cast Yes No Total no of valid votes cast Yes No
General practitioners 17 561 (53.18) 17 524 13 837 (78.96) 3687 (21.04) 17 488 11 062 (63.25) 6426 (36.75)
Consultants 18 721 (55.95) 18 671 15 733 (84.26) 2938 (15.74) 18 658 13 637 (73.09) 5021 (26.91)
Junior doctors 12 060 (39.51) 12 041 11 113 (92.29) 928 (7.71) 12 040 9863 (81.92) 2177 (18.08)
Staff, associate specialist, and specialty doctors 3476 (52.00) 3465 3030 (87.45) 435 (12.55) 3451 2644 (76.62) 807 (23.38)
Occupational medicine doctors 41 (30.15) 41 16 (39.02) 25 (60.98) 41 14 (34.15) 27 (65.85)
Public health and community health doctors 391 (52.55) 391 294 (75.19) 97 (24.81) 390 235 (60.26) 155 (39.74)

Data are no (%) of votes unless stated otherwise. A total of 104 544 BMA members were balloted across six separate ballots. Overall turnout was 50%.

The BMA has taken the decision to call industrial action “extremely reluctantly” and would prefer to continue negotiations with the government, said Meldrum. “However in the light of the government’s refusal to even consider a fairer way forward on the NHS pension scheme, doctors we believe have provided a clear mandate for action,” he said.

On 21 June doctors will be asked to attend their place of work as scheduled and provide urgent and emergency care only, which for hospital doctors will comprise emergency procedures, investigations, and discharges for inpatients; urgent surgery; and close review of outpatients with an unstable condition (for example, deteriorating Crohn’s disease). All non-urgent work—such as elective clinics, outpatient appointments, meetings, and paperwork—will be postponed.

Individual doctors will be expected to make decisions as to what care counts as urgent or emergency and what can be postponed, similar to the approach already used on bank holidays such as the upcoming Jubilee bank holidays, the BMA has said. “What we are doing is advising on the questions doctors should be asking themselves to decide on what is urgent and emergency care and whether patient care is given straight away,” said Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA’s Consultants Committee. “Anything else is up to the doctors’ individual decision.”

General practitioners will be expected to cancel all routine appointments but turn up at their practice and treat any patient who is or believes themselves to be in need of urgent or emergency care. “The patient defines whether it’s urgent or not; if they think it’s urgent, it’s urgent,” said Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee. GPs will probably not be doing paperwork and things that are of a routine nature and can wait for another day, he added.

NHS Employers has warned that industrial action will have an impact on care and cause distress and disruption to patients. “We know that doctors are anxious about changes to their pensions, but no one wants to see patients dragged into the argument,” said Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers. “Industrial action could potentially mean delays to treatment and would be particularly distressing for patients and extremely worrying for staff who are dedicated to putting patients first.”

However public safety will be paramount on 21 June, said Dr Meldrum. “It’s always a balance between trying to take action that has some impact and that represents the strength of feeling that people who were balloted have shown and trying to maintain patient safety as a priority,” he said. “If there is to be any erring on the side it will be erring on the side of patients’ safety.”

Doctors who did not vote for industrial action will not be expected to “fall in line” with the action proposed; each individual doctor will be at liberty to decide whether to participate in the strike on 21 June, said Dr Meldrum.

Helen Jaques news reporter BMJ Careers

 hjaques@bmj.com

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