Doctors defend strike in open letter

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

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Doctors have defended a decision to refuse all non-urgent care for a day in June - the profession's first strike for nearly 40 years.

In an open letter printed in UK newspapers, the British Medical Association said the decision had not been "taken lightly".

A majority of doctors voted in favour of action in a BMA ballot of 104,000 members over pension changes.

The government said the public would not sympathise with the BMA.

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

In a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun newspapers, the union said its strike would not impact on safety and those with the most serious needs would still be seen, as doctors did not want to put patients at risk.

"On that day, doctors will be in their usual workplaces but providing urgent and emergency care only", wrote the BMA.

"We will be postponing non-urgent cases and although this will be disruptive to the NHS, rest assured, doctors will be there when our patients need us most and our action will not impact on your safety."

It was important to explain, the letter said, that action was being taken "in order that our voice is heard by the government", so that doctors could get fair - not preferential - treatment.

It added that doctors would "work closely with NHS managers to ensure that anyone affected is able to receive as much notice as possible and to have non-urgent appointments rearranged".

Critical conditions

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

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.

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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