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Low turnout would scupper industrial action even if GPs vote Yes, BMA warns

Exclusive: BMA Council members will insist on a minimum turnout as well as a Yes vote before agreeing that the pensions ballot should trigger industrial action.

The first ballot of doctors on industrial action for almost 40 years gets underway today and will last until 29 May, with the BMA hoping it will give it a mandate to stage industrial action short of a strike.

But the final decision on industrial action rests with BMA Council, which will hold a special meeting on 30 May to consider the ballot results. And BMA Council members told Pulse that even if most of those who vote in the ballot opt for action, they will insist on a respectable turnout before pressing ahead with plans for a ‘day of action'.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council member and a GPC negotiator, said discussions had already been held about the dangers of a low turnout.

‘The interpretation of the ballot would have to take into consideration the turnout,' he said. ‘What we are pressing for is for all doctors to return their ballot papers. The interpretation of the ballot would clearly be more valid the higher the turnout.'

Dr Helena McKeown, another BMA Council member and a GP in Salisbury, said: ‘I wouldn't be highly impressed with a 20% turnout. However, if 80% of a 20% turnout wanted to take action, we would have to take a look at that. It will be dependent on the two figures and maybe breaking it down to branch of practice.'

Dr Kailash Chand, who after his election last month will join BMA Council in June, said he believed a turnout of 50% or more would be necessary.

‘I think we need a majority turnout and a majority vote to have a strong enough mandate,' he said.

The Royal College of Nursing held a ballot in March asking its members whether it should reject the Government's pensions proposals, and held back from rejecting the deal – despite two-thirds of those who voted asking it to do so – because turnout was just 16%.

The BMA began its programme of roadshows last week, with fewer than 100 doctors attending the first event at BMA House in central London. A BMA spokesperson declined to release figures for attendance at events around the country but insisted it had been ‘healthy'.

‘We're also holding local events in hospitals etc which have been popular,' she said.