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Pensions ballot Q&A with Dr Richard Vautrey

In the wake of BMA Council’s announcement on a balloton industrial action over pensions, Pulse spoke to GPC deputy chair and BMA Council member Dr Richard Vautrey to get his thoughts.

Q: Why has BMA Council decided to ballot doctors on action short of strike?

A: ‘Doctors will always put their patients first and that is why we’ve ruled out strike action. Any action that we do take will focus on minimising the risk and harms to patients, we need to keep them on our side. Our dispute is not with our patients, it is with the Govenrment. What we are really wanting now is the Government to get round the table and engage in some meaningful talks.’

Q: What kind of industrial action will be on the table when GPs are balloted?

A: ‘There is a whole host of ideas and suggestions. I think what will be happening over the next few days will be trying to distill those so that we are clear with doctors when it comes to a ballot, and with our patients, what a ballot on industrial action will look like. But we are absolutely clear that patients come first and we need to minimise the risk to patients.’

Q: Will GP-specific action be considered? Will there be different types of action for the different branches of medicine?

A: ‘It is really too early to say, but clearly the medical profession is very diverse and one form of action for one branch might not be relevant to another but we haven’t got into those details yet.’

Q: What is the timetable for a ballot?

A:‘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.’

Q: Health secretary Andrew Lansley has said the threat of industrial action will yield ‘no concessions’ on pensions. Does the BMA feel that the ballot is already doomed to fail in terms of changing the DH’s stance?

A: ‘No not at all. We wouldn’t be engaging with this if that was the case. What we are seeking really is fairness. Just for instance a civil servant on the equivalent pay will pay 7.5% in to their pensions whereas doctors will pay 14.5% – that isn’t fair. What we are seeking isn’t to be treated any differently, we are not seeking to be treated specially, we are simply seeking a fair deal. NHS staff agreed to major reforms of their pension scheme four years ago to make sure the scheme was not a drain on taxpayers. But now the Government has gone back on that deal – that is why doctors are so angry.’

Q: Do you think the public will support doctors being balloted on pensions?

A: ‘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.’

Q: How will the GPC be involved in this issue in coming weeks?

A: ‘This is ultimately a matter for BMA Council. They are the ultimate determining body when it comes to industrial action but clearly GPC will advise Council.’

Q: The meeting today lasted seven hours. Is that a sign of how difficult a decision this was to take?

A: ‘When it comes to doctors taking industrial action it is hugely difficult. We haven’t done this since the 1970s – this was not something that doctors want to do but they feel they are being forced because the Government has not been talking to them. The Government can change this. They can sit round the table with us and talk to us and that is what we will be seeking. We haven’t yet had any really meaningful talks and that is what we do want.

Q: What is your message to GPs on the back of today’s meeting?

A: ‘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.’