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Lansley’s nuclear option on pensions

Making GPs work longer and pay more for their pensions is one step too far from the health secretary.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley has a flair for the dramatic. He abolished PCTs, held a bonfire of NHS quangos and now he is taking the nuclear option on GPs' pensions.

As Pulse revealed before Christmas, the Department of Health was already proposing successive increases in GPs' pension contributions, as it prepared to open New Year negotiations with the BMA. Now Mr Lansley has pressed a button that will trigger a truly explosive response from the profession, by authorising his negotiators to demand an increase in the retirement age to 65.

There had already been fevered speculation the Government would force GPs to work for longer, as its attempts to persuade GPs to switch to the 2008 pension scheme – which includes a later retirement age – have come to nothing. But the news the proposal has now been formally raised in negotiations will nevertheless send a jolt through the profession.

Yes, new entrants already have to work until 65, and yes, it is the norm for many other walks of life too. But for GPs who have timed their passage through long, hard, exceptionally intense careers in the understanding that at 60 they would gain release, that will be no consolation at all.

Dr Iain McLeod, a GP in West Lothian, caught the mood of the profession perfectly in last week's letters section: ‘I watched my father flog himself and visibly age between 60 and 65 – only to die at 67. There is no way I will work beyond 60.'

Mr Lansley presumably believes there is a way to persuade many other GPs to do so, whatever the grandstanding now. But there is already evidence that his plans to mess with the GP pension could have disastrous consequences for both the strength of general practice and the likely success of his own reforms. Back in October, when the talk of a retirement age of 65 was just an ugly rumour, GPs were already drawing up their escape plans. Dr Clive Brady, a GP in Surrey, said he was considering quitting before the coming Budget, when details of the pension crackdown will be announced. Bob Senior, chair of the Association of Independent Specialist Medical Accountants, warns that an extension of the retirement age is the one issue that really could drive GPs to a mass exodus from the NHS.

It's to avert such a nightmare scenario that Pulse is this week launching an online petition – No to 65. We need to attract support from as many GPs as possible over the coming weeks, to place pressure on DH negotiators and the Treasury. Mr Lansley must be made to understand that his nuclear option could blow a hole through the ranks of Britain's most experienced GPs. It would create a vacuum that the profession in general, and his cherished commissioning consortia in particular, would struggle to fill. For most politicians, that would surely be one drama too many.

Editorial No to 65

Click here to sign our online petition

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