GPs and hospital doctors will be balloted on taking industrial action over pensions, but will not be given the option to strike after BMA Council voted to proceed with a ballot on other forms of industrial action.
At an extraordinary meeting of BMA Council held at BMA House earlier today, Council members voted to rule out strike action, but said it will ballot the BMA's 130,000 members on other forms of industrial action over pensions. Read the full BMA statement here.
The move brings the prospect of the first industrial action by doctors since the 1970s. Pulse understands BMA Council did discuss a detailed list of industrial action options, but the options to be put to doctors in the ballot have still to be finalised.
BMA chair Dr Hamish Meldrum said: 'The decision to ballot for the first time in 40 years has not been taken lightly.'
'Doctors and medical students have overwhelmingly rejected the current offer, and we've pursued every avenue we possibly could to bring the Government back to meaningful talks.'
'With no signs of movement, we simply cannot ignore this strength of feeling by medical staff. We therefore have no other option but to ballot on industrial action.'
'Taking industrial action remains a last resort and we urge the Government to work with us – and the other health unions – to find a fairer way forward. Should industrial action be necessary, the priority would be to limit disruption and prevent harm to patients.'
'That is why we have completely ruled out strike action and are committed to reviewing the risks for patients at every stage.'
GPC deputy chair and BMA Council member Dr Richard Vautrey said that there is 'a whole host' of options for industrial action under consideration but said the BMA would be 'distilling' them over coming days before making a final decision.
Dr Vautrey said: 'The timetable is primarily set by the legal processes that have to be gone through for industrial action. We need to rigidly follow that so that we go about that appropriately.'
‘It is a hugely complex process but we have taken robust advice to make sure that we get it right. We are very much aware that unions have been challenged over their ballots in the past. We need to make sure that when we are balloting our members we have to do it in a way that is in line with the legal rules.'
Dr Vautrey said decisions on options for industrial action will ultimately be taken by BMA Council. But he said GPC would be feeding into the process and said that the BMA recognised the concerns of family doctors.
'BMA Council has heard GPs' feedback, they have heard how angry GPs are but also know that they put their patients first. That is why we have ruled out strike action, and that's why any action that we do take will ensure that we minimise the risk to our patients,' he said.
The BMA Council decision reflects the results of a BMA survey that led to the union formally rejecting the Government's final pensions offer in January. The poll of 46,000 doctors revealed that 84% felt the pensions offer was unacceptable.
Almost two-thirds of doctors surveyed were willing to take some form of industrial action over pensions, but only 20% of members – and 17% of GPs - said they would consider ‘any kind of industrial action including strike action.'
The BMA's decision will also ramp up tensions between the union and the Department of Health, after health secretary Andrew Lansley insisted that the use, or threat, of industrial action will secure ‘no concessions' from the Government on pensions.
Under the Government's pensions plans GPs will have to work longer, with the normal pensions age rising from 60 to 68. Doctors will also face steep contribution hikes, with contribution rates rising to as much as 14.5% by 2014, compared to a current rate of 8.5%.
Since the BMA rejected the Government's offer in January, the union has maintained that industrial action has been ‘a last resort' and gave the Government until today (the 25th February) to open negotiations on an improved pensions deal. But direct appeals from BMA leaders to both the Department of Health and the Treasury failed to yield any ‘meaningful negotiations' on pensions.
Pulse revealed earlier this week that the impasse on pensions talks has led BMA to explore a possible legal challenge on the basis of 'equality', as the union explored 'every possible avenue' of averting industrial action.
Earlier this week ministers urged GPs to recognise that the Government's pensions offer is ‘fair'.
Writing in Pulse, health minister Simon Burns said: ‘This is a significantly improved offer, which most unions agree is the best that can be achieved through negotiation. I urge GPs to recognise that this offer is fair.'