Doctors’ union calls strike on 21 June

Emergency medical care will continue, but British Medical Association members will postpone non-urgent cases

Doctors will take industrial action on 21 June in a dispute over pensions, the British Medical Association has announced. Its members will provide urgent and emergency care but will postpone non-urgent cases.

The doctors voted for industrial action for the first time since 1975 to protest against the government’s planned shake-up of their pensions.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said separate ballots of six branches of its 130,000-strong membership, including GPs and hospital consultants, had produced an overall majority in favour of action, on a 50% turnout.

The union is proposing that doctors would continue to provide all urgent and emergency care during any industrial action, in order to safeguard patients’ welfare. Instead, their action will involve postponing non-urgent work, such as outpatient appointments, for a 24-hour period, either once or twice.

The vote sets up a major confrontation with ministers, who have given little ground over the BMA’s strong complaints that the government’s proposal will force doctors to contribute more to their pensions, work longer, and receive less in retirement on a career-average scheme instead of a final-salary one.

The BMA’s ruling council met to discuss the implications of the ballot, which closed on Tuesday night.

The BMA asked its members two questions: are you prepared to take part in industrial action short of a strike, and are you prepared to take part in a strike?

Doctors in five of the BMA’s six branches voted by resounding majorities in favour of both courses of action, with only the 41 occupational-medicine doctors who voted bucking the trend. Among 17,561 GPs who voted, 79% backed industrial action short of a strike and 63% endorsed strike action. A total of 18,721 consultants voted 84% in favour of the first option and 73% in favour of the second.

Among the 3,476 staff, associate specialists and specialty doctors who took part, 87% backed action short of a strike and 77% a strike. The 12,060 junior doctors gave the fullest backing to strike action, with 92% endorsing action short of a strike and 82% – the largest majority – saying they were prepared to strike.

The vote among 391 public health and community health doctors followed the same trend of smaller majorities for an outright strike, with 75% saying they would be prepared to take action short of a strike and 60% indicating their readiness to take part in a strike.

The last time doctors took industrial action was in 1975, when consultants suspended goodwill activities and worked to contract over a contractual dispute, and junior doctors worked to a 40-hour week because of dissatisfaction with the progress of contract negotiations.

The BMA argues that higher-paid NHS staff already pay proportionately more for their pensions than most other public sector workers, a disparity it said increased in April when their contributions went up, and which is set to rise again.

By 2014, some doctors will have 14.5% deducted from their pay for their pensions, compared with 7.35% for senior civil servants on similar salaries, to receive similar pensions, said the BMA.

Doctors currently at the start of their careers would be hardest hit, having to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds extra – double what they would have paid – in lifetime pensions contributions, according to the association.

NHS Employers, which represents major health service organisations such as hospital trusts on employment issues, warned that action by doctors would upset patients and could mean their treatment was delayed.

Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, said: “They know that any industrial action will impact on care and cause distress and disruption to patients and undermine trust and confidence in the medical profession. We know that doctors are anxious about changes to their pensions. But no one wants to see patients dragged into the argument.”

John Hanratty, national head of public sector pensions at law firm Pinsent Masons, said: “In many health professionals’ minds, the reform of the NHS pension scheme is inextricably linked with the government’s health reforms. Anecdotal evidence is that many think that the reform of the NHS pension scheme is the government’s way of punishing the professions for opposing the changes to the health reforms.”

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