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Strike action will come to nothing

GPs who take part in the pension protest should be under no illusions that the Government will cave in, warns health minister Simon Burns

On 21 June, members of the BMA plan a day of strike action in protest against the proposed changes to their pensions.

This is incredibly disappointing news, most of all because of the disruption and distress it will inevitably cause to patients.

The action could see up to 30,000 operations cancelled, as many as 58,000 diagnostic tests postponed and more than 200,000 outpatient appointments rescheduled. The effects of this will echo through the NHS long after the strike is over.

The BMA has stated that patient safety will be its overriding priority during the industrial action. The public expects nothing less.

To this end, I call on the BMA to co-operate fully with all NHS organisations in planning for the proposed strike and its aftermath.

Of course, the NHS Constitution ensures the right of all NHS staff to representation through a trade union. Yet it also gives patients the right to wait no longer than 18 weeks from referral to treatment.

Just as those intending to strike are exercising their rights under the NHS Constitution, they also have a responsibility not to contravene the rights of their patients. I hope the BMA will publicly accept this obligation.

The decision to strike is also disappointing because it is hard to justify on the facts.

During the negotiations on pension reform, our overarching aim has been to secure a deal that is both fair and sustainable for everyone who works in the NHS.

NHS staff deserve the best pension we can provide and I believe we have done exactly that. A doctor joining the NHS in three years' time, when the changes take effect, and who retires at the age of 68 can expect to receive a pension of £68,000 a year in today's money. That equates on average to around £4 for every £1 they pay in. The 24-year-old female junior doctor today can expect to live on average to the age of 94. That will mean 26 years of drawing a pension more than two-and-a-half times the UK average income, or more than £1.75m. It is hard to see how this can be described as anything other than fair.

It is particularly disappointing that industrial action is being taken – action from which other trade unions have refrained – so that doctors can pay less in their pension contributions than nurses and other less well-paid NHS workers. It is hard to see how this can be described as anything other than grossly unfair.

I know some claim that the current system is sustainable and hold up the fact that the scheme is currently running a surplus to support this argument.

But running a surplus is not the same as being sustainable.

The NHS Pension Scheme is currently collecting more in contributions than it pays out. This is because there are thousands more people working in the NHS than ever before, all contributing to the pension scheme.

In time, these staff will retire and start to draw a pension. Things could then look very different indeed.

Your pension is guaranteed by the Government on behalf of taxpayers. This guarantee will remain even if future contributions fall below the cost of the pension. There have also been claims that doctors will be forced to work until they are 68. This is not true. Doctors can choose to retire earlier, but obviously with a reduced pension. During these negotiations, officials met with the BMA 23 times and the secretary of state for health, Andrew Lansley, has met with BMA chair Dr Hamish Meldrum on five separate occasions.

The offer we negotiated with the BMA and with the other health trades unions is the best offer available.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the proposed industrial action has no chance of reopening these negotiations. All those intent on striking should understand that.

Public sector pensions need to be reformed. The secretary of state and I have worked hard throughout this process to ensure that everyone who works in the NHS secures the best possible pension.

I do not want doctors to take industrial action. I do not think patients would wish them to either.

Simon Burns MP is a health minister and the Conservative MP for Chelmsford

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