Doctors have voted to take industrial action for the first time since 1975 to protest against the government’s planned shakeup of their pensions.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said separate ballots of six different branches of its 130,000-strong membership, including GPs and hospital consultants, had produced an overall majority in favour of action.
The result is unlikely to lead to an outright strike. The union is proposing that doctors would continue to provide all urgent and emergency care during any industrial action, in order to safeguard patients’ welfare and safety. Instead, their action will involve postponing non-urgent work, such as outpatient appointments, for 24 hours either once or twice.
The vote sets up a major confrontation with ministers, who have given little ground to the BMA’s strong complaints over the last year that their proposal will force doctors to contribute more to their pensions, work longer, and receive less in retirement on a career-average scheme instead of a final-salary one.
The BMA’s ruling council is meeting to discuss the implications of the ballot, which closed on Tuesday night, and its leadership will brief the media at lunchtime on Wednesday about what happens next. “Only BMA council can sanction industrial action in the event of a majority of members who return valid ballot papers voting in favour of industrial action,” the union said in a brief statement.
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.
The BMA argues that higher paid NHS staff already pay proportionately more for their pensions than most other public sector workers, a disparity it said increased in April when their contributions went up, and which is set to rise again.
By 2014, some doctors will have 14.5% deducted from their pay for their pensions, compared with 7.35% for senior civil servants on similar salaries, to receive similar pensions, said the BMA.
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, according to the association.
NHS Employers, which represents major health service organisations such as hospital trusts on employment issues, warned that action by doctors would upset patients and could mean their treatment was delayed. It urged BMA council members to “do the right thing for patients” and refuse to sanction the action.
Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, said: “As the BMA council now meet I really want them to put patients at the centre of their decision-making. They 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.”
He added: “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. Its a tough decision for the BMA council but they should do the right thing for patients.
“If they do decide to call doctors out on strike then the more notice employers get of this the more robust our contingency plans will be,” he added.