Doctors target non-urgent care in industrial action

Dr Tom Frewin and Dr Tariq Hussain have opposing views on the decision to take industrial action

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Doctors will stop providing non-urgent care for a day next month in the first industrial action by the profession for nearly 40 years.

The move comes after a majority of doctors voted in favour of action in a British Medical Association ballot of 104,000 members over pension changes.

The 24-hour day of action will take place on 21 June.

The union said emergency care would still take place, as doctors did not want to put patients at risk.

Of those balloted, half responded. Among the main groups of doctors the results were overwhelming.

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 this 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

Analysis

Doctors are among the best-paid public sector employees - and as such they also have the most lucrative pensions.

The average hospital consultant retiring today will enjoy a pension of £48,000 a year and a lump sum of over £140,000.

Among public-sector pensions being paid out, doctors account for two-thirds of the top 1% of pay outs.

As a result, this government - and the Labour one that preceded it and reformed pensions in 2008 - has taken the judgement that it wants the best-paid to subsidise the pensions of the lowest.

Contributions will rise the greatest for the highest earners. Those earning over £110,000 a year will end up contributing 14.5% of their salary.

Many may understand that approach, but doctors believe they are being unfairly targeted.

They point out that the top-paid civil servants will not be hit in the same way - and that perceived injustice has put the profession at loggerheads with the government.

It will be the first time since 1975 that doctors have taken industrial action.

It is not yet known whether the day of action will be followed by further ones.

Unions representing a host of health professionals, including paramedics, admin staff and porters, have already taken part in strikes over pension changes.

Patient safety 'safeguarded'

But the Royal College of Nursing, one of the most influential voices inside the NHS alongside the BMA, has yet to decide what it will do.

It has held a ballot where the majority rejected the government's pension changes, but the turnout was low.

Under the plans, which apply to England and Wales but could be introduced elsewhere in the UK, 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 union has also questioned government claims that the current scheme - which was only agreed in 2008 - was unsustainable, pointing out it brings in a £2bn-a-year surplus.

BMA leader Dr Hamish Meldrum said while the action would be disruptive, doctors would ensure that patient safety was not compromised.

He added: "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."

BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum: "We are not seeking preferential treatment on pensions; we're seeking fair treatment"

But 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.

Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, added: "We know that doctors are anxious about changes to their pensions. But no-one wants to see patients dragged into the argument.

"Industrial action could potentially mean delays to treatment. It would be particularly distressing for patients and extremely worrying for staff, who are dedicated to putting patients first."

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