The BMA is picking the wrong fight
Balloting members over industrial action on pensions but not the health bill will be a PR disaster for the BMA, warns Dr Kailash Chand
Each and every member of the NHS family deserves a good pension – don't let anyone else tell you otherwise – and the ballot called by the BMA on possible industrial action has its merits.
The Government's proposed changes to our pensions will effectively act as a selective tax rise on the NHS workforce, and the justification given is that we have allowed private-sector pensions to get so bad that everyone should suffer.
As we all know, employee contributions are set to go through the roof. Last April, the Government switched from the retail price index to the consumer price index for increasing public-service pensions. This move alone represents a cut of at least 15% in our benefits.
The Government will pay dearly if it imposes change on the medical profession. But the union also faces a price if confrontation ensues. While the Government's conduct so far has been unacceptable, the BMA too has chosen the wrong time to fight.
If the BMA says the coalition's health reforms are incoherent, complex, dangerous and unsafe, then why is it only balloting the profession on industrial action over pensions – and not on the health bill?
Making a big noise about doctors' pensions now is a grave mistake. We risk a huge smear on the reputation of the whole medical profession by doing this at such a critical time for the NHS.
The time to act on pensions was before Christmas. Protests across the public sector on 30 November had the support of many. However, the BMA's reluctance to join that protest left GPs out in the cold, and the pensions protest has struggled on since then.
The vote for industrial action has been met with a mixed response – we're too late to protest alongside the public sector, and too conscientious for an outright strike.
So what now? The BMA must put its pensions fight aside until the matter of the bill is resolved. Industrial action to save our personal pensions will turn into a PR disaster for the BMA.
The right-wing press will have a field day, accusing us of taking industrial action to preserve those pensions that fall within the UK's top 5%.
The NHS reforms, however, are an issue that unite GPs – not only with the wider health service, but also with patients. This is a protest that can't be stopped. That is not to say pensions don't matter – but we cannot afford to divide our attention at this moment in history.
As the health bill gains more and more momentum in Parliament, we need to put our energy into the big issue rather than letting political pressure divide us. In any event, the question of ‘pensions or politics' is not an either/or problem – we can still go back to the table to renegotiate pensions without losing credibility on the bigger picture of health reform.
I intend to stand for BMA Council again this year so I can contribute to this debate. I don't want the medical profession to become fragmented under pressure, and we need to protect ourselves from those on the outside with a vested interest.
But I can't do it by myself. The union needs the support of all its members during the hard times ahead.
Why would the BMA not ballot its members for industrial action to save the NHS? If the union knows we would disrupt our work to protect our finances, it must also show the public that we would be willing to do the same to save the NHS.
Dr Kailash Chand is a former BMA Council member and set up the ‘Drop the Health Bill' e-petition