Doctors back action in pensions row


Doctors are to take industrial action for the first time in almost 40 years in protest at the Government's controversial pension reforms.

Non-urgent cases will be postponed on June 21 as part of disruption caused by the "reluctant" day of action.

The British Medical Association (BMA) announced the move after a ballot of over 100,000 doctors showed a clear majority in favour of protests on a high turnout of 50%.

Ministers were accused of pressing ahead with "totally unjustified" increases to pension contributions, and a later retirement age for doctors even though a deal on pensions was agreed four years ago.

The development followed a warning earlier this week of co-ordinated strikes by the two biggest teachers unions in England and Wales in the autumn term over pensions and other issues such as pay and workload.

A series of national strikes have already been held by public sector workers over the coalition Government's pension changes, with fresh action being threatened for next month.

The Government is now on a collision course with doctors, teachers, civil servants, lecturers and other public sector employees after failing to persuade millions of workers to accept the reforms.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA, said: "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 and its refusal to acknowledge the major reforms of 2008 that made the NHS scheme sustainable in the long term.

"Non-urgent work will be postponed and, although this will be disruptive to the NHS, doctors will ensure patient safety is protected.

"All urgent and emergency care will be provided and we will work closely with managers so that anyone whose care is going to be affected can be given as much notice as possible."

The BMA said doctors will see anyone who is ill, or who believes they are ill, on the day of action, but will not do paperwork.

The BMA complained that the Government has begun to implement major changes to the NHS pension scheme, despite "widespread criticism" of its approach from organisations representing health professionals.

"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.

"The latest changes will see doctors paying up to 14.5% of their salaries in pension contributions - twice as much as some other public sector staff on a similar salary in order to receive a similar pension.

"They will also have to work longer to receive their pension - up to 68 for younger doctors," said the BMA.

Dr Meldrum said most doctors would be taking industrial action for the first time, with the last dispute almost 40 years ago.

The big vote for action showed the strength of feeling among doctors, who were "acutely aware" of the impact of any action on patients.

"There will be some inconvenience, but the last thing we want to do is harm patients when our real bone of contention is with the Government," he said.

Doctors have been hit by a pay freeze and increased workload so the increased pension contributions were the "final straw".

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.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "The public will not understand or sympathise with the BMA if they call for industrial action over their pensions.

"People know that pension reform is needed as people live longer and to be fair in future for everyone. We have been clear that the NHS pension scheme is, and will remain, one of the best available anywhere.

"Every doctor within 10 years of retirement will receive the pension they expected, when they expected.

"Today's newly qualified doctor who works to 65 will get the same pension as the average consultant retiring today would receive at 60 - the BMA have already accepted a pension age of 65.

"If doctors choose to work to 68 then they could expect to receive a larger pension of £68,000."

Mr Lansley told BBC Radio 4's The World at One that there will be no change to the pension reforms as a result of the industrial action.

Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, said: "Doctors 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.

"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."

Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: "We wholeheartedly welcome this decision which sends a clear message that, like other public servants, doctors do not believe their pensions should be raided to pay for an economic crisis caused by greed and recklessness in the financial sector.

"We will continue to work with our colleagues in other unions and, if the Government refuses to reopen negotiations as we have requested, further co-ordinated industrial action will be necessary."

Six separate ballots were held, with votes in favour of industrial action short of a strike ranging from 75% to 92%, although a small number of occupational medicine doctors voted against.

* The BMA is facing the threat of industrial action by its own staff in a dispute over pay. The GMB union is balloting its members employed by the BMA, with the result due tomorrow.