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BMA braced for backlash over industrial action ballot

Exclusive The BMA will decide a menu of ‘craft-specific’ options for industrial action over pensions, with members warning they have to avoid the ‘bear trap’ of being blamed by the Government for service failures.

BMA Council members voted in favour of balloting 130,000 BMA members on industrial action short of a strike at a ‘difficult but constructive’ extraordinary meeting of BMA Council on Saturday.

The Department of Health has already said that industrial action would draw ‘no concessions’ over pensions and warned that action would ‘harm patients’.

Council members told Pulse that the seven-hour meeting had carefully weighed up public opinion about doctors in its decision to ballot members and had also considered whether the Government might use the decision to discredit the BMA’s opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill.

Council member Dr Helena McKeown, a GP in Salisbury told Pulse: ‘We spent some time looking at studies on how the public feel about doctors. There were also various concerns that the Government will try to muddy the waters by linking this to the fight over the bill.’

‘However, we’re clear that we can show the timelines of both and demonstrate that there is no link.’

Pulse understands specific forms of industrial action were not discussed at Saturday’s meeting but are likely to be craft-specific and will be fleshed out at tomorrow’s GPC meeting and by the BMA’s central consultants and specialists committee early next month.

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA council member and GPC deputy chair confirmed that public opinion was crucial.

He told Pulse: ‘We are very mindful of public support which is exactly why we have ruled out strike action. We will put our patients first. We won’t do anything that risks our patients. That is why we have taken the decision that we have.’

Dr Fay Wilson, BMA council member and a GP in Birmingham acknowledged that the timing of the decision to ballot members on industrial action posed tactical difficulties but said the BMA had to act: ‘It’s the Government’s timetable. We can’t say to members to stop being cross for a bit while we sort out the health bill.’

BMA Council member Dr Clive Peedell, a consultant clinical oncologist at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough said that in devising actions avoiding harm to patients was ‘crucial’.

‘Tactically, there is a bear trap waiting for us. The Government will look for any excuse to blame things on doctors and if there are service failures as a result of the reforms they’ll be able to say it was our industrial action that caused it.’

Dr Brian Keighley, BMA council member and a GP in Balfron, Stirlingshire said: ‘There’s never been a right time for this kind of dispute. This is not the excitable action of an old-fashioned trade union.’

Speaking after the decision to ballot on industrial action, health secretary Andrew Lansley said: ‘There is no justification for industrial action – it would harm patients. We have been holding weekly discussions with all the trades unions, including the BMA and it is premature for them to ballot their members on industrial action – no concessions will be won through these threats.’