Doctors vote to take industrial action

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By Bob Duncan

For the first time in forty years, doctors will take industrial action for 24 hours next month.  This could include up to 10,000 doctors in Scotland, who will provide only urgent care throughout the 21st of June.

The move comes after a majority of UK doctors voted in favour of action in a British Medical Association (BMA) ballot of 104,000 members over pension changes.  Some 79% of GPs, 84% of hospital consultants and 92% of junior doctors who responded voted in favour.

By targeting non-urgent care, patients are likely to be affected in the following way: 

  • Elective operations such as knee and hip replacements likely to be postponed;
  • GP practices to remain open, but routine appointments will not take place;
  • Hospital appointments for routine conditions expected to be cancelled;
  • Tests for critical conditions such as cancer will still be available;
  • A&E units and maternity services to run as normal.

It is unknown as yet whether this day of action will be followed by further ones.

Under the UK government’s plans, which only apply to England and Wales but which could soon be introduced in Scotland, the age at which doctors retire would rise from 65 to 68 by 2015. The contributions doctors have to make are also due to rise.

The body has also questioned the Westminster government claim that the current scheme – which was only agreed in 2008 – is unsustainable, pointing out it actually brings in a £2bn-a-year surplus.

Doctors claim proposed changes will mean they will pay almost double what they pay now into their pensions, and get less back in return.

The BMA rejected cuts to doctors’ pensions despite warning that some hospitals in England are so financially stretched that patient safety can no longer be guaranteed and that “accidents will happen”.

BMA leader Dr Hamish Meldrum said while the action would be disruptive, doctors would ensure that patient safety was not compromised, adding “We are taking this step very reluctantly and would far prefer to negotiate for a fairer solution.

“But this clear mandate for action – on a very high turnout – reflects just how let down doctors feel by the government’s unwillingness to find a fairer approach to the latest pension changes.”

However, England & Wales Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: “The public will not understand or sympathise with the BMA. People know that pension reform is needed as people live longer and to be fair in future for everyone.”

He said the NHS pension would remain “one of the best available anywhere”, pointing out a new doctor joining the revised scheme could still expect a pension of £68,000 a year on retirement.

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

By 2014, some doctors will see deductions of 14.5 per cent from their pay for their pensions, compared with 7.35 per cent for senior civil servants on similar salaries, to receive similar pensions.

According to the BMA, the NHS scheme currently delivers a positive cashflow of £2 billion a year to the Treasury, and NHS staff have already accepted responsibility for any future increases in costs due to improved longevity.

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. They will also have to work longer to receive their pension – up to 68 for younger doctors.

Responding to a claim that patients in Scotland would be inconvenienced by the day of action, Dr. Brian Keighley, chairman of the BMA in Scotland said:

“The Scottish Government have initiated discussions and we are participating in those, but the range of actions that they have – because they are so constrained by the coalition government – meant that action is still necessary to show how angry doctors are.”

“Unfortunately, they are in the middle of all this. The dispute is really with the coalition government, who are imposing a tax on hard-working doctors… The real target of the doctors’ anger is the government in London.”