Dominic Lawson: The public think our striking doctors are greedy. And they're right

It's not the government that will suffer as a result of industrial action. It is patients.

Share

The last time doctors took industrial action was back in 1975. Among them were consultants who objected furiously to the decision of the then Labour Government to outlaw their treating private patients within NHS hospitals. Dr Ron Singer, the president of The Medical Practitioners' Union section of Unite, has written an article contrasting that "selfish" withdrawal of labour with this Thursday's strike called by the British Medical Association. This, says Dr Singer, will be "just", whereas the consultants in 1975 "took action for their own monetary advantage".

I may be missing something, but isn't the BMA organising the withdrawal of all "non-emergency" care precisely in pursuit of "their own monetary advantage"? This is not inappropriate, by the way: the sole purpose of the BMA – which it does not disguise – is to further the interests of doctors. It is a trade union: why else would it be collecting dues from members? In this case, the interest being defended is its members' pensions. The terms are being made less attractive by the Government. Doctors will now have to put 14.5 per cent of their salary aside to fund their index-linked pension, rather than the current proportion of 8.5 per cent; and the age at which they will able to draw their full pension will rise by two years.

There's no doubt that this is a significant change in the arrangements; yet even after that, the average doctor's pension if he retires at 68 will be £68,000 a year. To put that in context: if you wanted to buy a joint annuity which would provide that sum in retirement (and for your spouse after your death), it would cost about £2m on the open market. I wonder how many of the up to 30,000 patients who will have their operations cancelled on Thursday could ever imagine having such a sum set aside for their own retirement, and of which over 85 per cent would come courtesy of the taxpayer?

I would imagine that those who have are most likely also to be those who go private, if they can't face the delay and inefficiency which characterise the producer-dominated NHS – even when it is not deliberately caused by industrial action. Indeed, it is sometimes forgotten that no medical practitioner is obliged to work only for the NHS (part of the deal to which Aneurin Bevan was referring when he declared he had "stuffed their mouths with gold" back in 1948). So when you read that the average GP's salary is around £110,000 a year, bear in mind that many will be receiving significantly more than that, either because he or she has an especially lucrative NHS practice, or because of additional private sector work, which does not get included in the figures released annually by the Department of Health.

It is partly for these reasons that Dr Richard Horton, the Editor of The Lancet, has just delivered himself of an excoriating editorial in the current edition of the leading medical journal; and in a further statement was even more scathing. "The BMA's decision is a betrayal of its professional obligation to put patients first above all other concerns. Doctors are one of the most well-paid groups in society. While almost everyone in Britain is having to accept the financial challenges we face, the BMA seems to think that its members have a God-given right to exempt themselves... I just hope that their recklessly selfish decision does not diminish the public's view of the very fine doctors we have in this country."

Actually, I think the public's view of the innate saintliness of our very fine doctors had already been diminishing, even before this petulant spasm of militancy. Under a remarkably good "productivity" deal it negotiated with the Blair administration in 2004, doctors managed to get up to 45 per cent more pay in return for giving up working at night or over weekends. One of the BMA's negotiators, Dr Simon Fradd, told the BBC some years later that GPs were so amazed by the terms offered for their out-of-hours opt-out that they thought it was "a bit of a laugh".

There is no doubt that the old arrangement in which doctors were on-call effectively all day and all night, and at weekends, was brutally tough; and now that the medical profession is no longer an overwhelmingly male sinecure, it is completely understandable that the hours had to be reduced – a woman doctor cannot be expected to look after her patients to such an extent that it damages the wellbeing of her own children.

Yet the fact is that the public, while still seeing doctors as life-savers (or at least life-prolongers), has for some time stopped viewing them as under-rewarded – and not just because they now get a disembodied voice from a call centre when they ring up in a crisis at weekends. Thus a recent opinion poll carried out by YouGov showed that 92 per cent believe doctors are "well paid" and only four per cent thought they were underpaid – or deserved a higher pension. Those are strikingly adverse figures for any group wishing to take industrial action which will mightily inconvenience the public.

Nor is it as certain as the BMA claims that there will be no deaths as a result of the withdrawal of "non-emergency" operations, check-ups and other appointments. As Dr Angus Ross, a Cumbria-based GP who voted against the industrial action, explained: "What constitutes an emergency? I don't know until I have examined someone – 24 hours can mean the difference between life and death. I have lost count of the times that someone has come in for a routine appointment and I have privately thought, 'Thank God they came in today', before sending them to hospital for immediate admission. It might be a gentleman who has a pain in his chest and thinks he pulled a muscle, but is actually having a heart attack... I am in no doubt that there will be patients whose health is compromised by these strikes."

Doubtless if there is such a tragedy as a result of the industrial action, the BMA will either deny the connection, or else blame it on "the Government's refusal to listen to our just demands". Indeed, it already insists that it "regrets having to take" the action... against its patients. Well, who else is being made to suffer? It will not inconvenience the Government one iota. When their day of action is over, and the Government has not budged a millimetre – what then? Another Thursday spent subversively on the golf course?

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003