Doctors haven't taken industrial action since 1975, but the prospect of the medical profession joining teachers, immigration staff and other civil servants on picket lines is now a live one after an electrifying vote at the BMA annual representative meeting.
The killer section of the pension motion authorised a ballot on ‘all forms of industrial action' if the Government doesn't back down, in particular on its plans to scrap the consultants' final salary scheme.
In practice though, the BMA leadership knows balloting for action to protect that particular perk of consultants, while waving through moves to raise GPs' retirement age to 65 and beyond, and potentially to double their contributions, would be enormously divisive. If there is to be industrial action, it will be designed to challenge the whole package of pension reforms, and GP partners will be expected to take their places alongside consultants and salaried GPs in some form of protest.
The BMA vote revitalises the medical profession's battle against the Government's pension reforms, after the rejection by LMCs of the option to take industrial action had appeared to leave GPs resigned to the pain ahead. Key details also emerged this week of the tactics doctors' leaders will use in ratcheting up pressure on ministers over their pension reforms.
It is clear that health unions are planning a co-ordinated negotiating position to protect the NHS pension, pleading that healthcare professionals ‘are in a unique situation' and should not be bound by changes to pensions threatened elsewhere in the public sector. That negotiating position may yet be backed by a co-ordinated programme of action.
Most explicit was the Royal College of Midwives, which said: ‘All the health unions are talking together. If there is an imposition of the changes, we might well ballot our members at the same time and look at co-ordinated industrial action.'
The Government knew it was in for a fight over its pension reforms, but ministers are bound to be daunted by the prospect of a battle with the whole of the NHS.
The BMA's leaders took a slightly odd line on the pension vote. BMA chair Dr Hamish Meldrum struck a typically conciliatory tone, and while he supported the pension motion in full, he made clear he was doing so only because he regarded the threat of a ballot on industrial action as ‘hypothetical'.
But the motion binds the BMA to call a ballot ‘in the event there is a Government plan to halt the final-salary pension scheme' – and ministers have made perfectly plain that this is exactly what they are proposing.
Dr Meldrum, like LMCs, is nervous that the public will struggle to find much sympathy for the cause of protecting doctors' pensions. He may be right, but the anger being expressed by nurses and midwives gives him the perfect cover in making a powerful case to the Government that it mustn't mess with the NHS scheme.
Careers in the NHS are hard work – they are physically and emotionally draining, and burn-out is a real risk, not only for the doctor or the nurse, but for their ability to offer the best quality of care for their patients.
The BMA needs to make that case. It must speak with one voice with nurses and midwives to argue that the NHS needs a strong pension, to protect its workers, to attract the brightest and best, and to safeguard the highest standards of patient care for everyone in the UK.
You can find out more about changes to GP pensions and personal finance at our upcoming event on the subjects. Click here to read about the event.
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