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BMA’s day of action is just the start

Say No to 30%. It’s a simple slogan, coined by GPs on Pulse’s website, and this week we adopt it for the next stage in our campaigning on GP pensions. The 30% figure refers to the mind-boggling proportion of a GP’s income some will end up paying in employee and employer pension contributions under the Government’s reforms.


Last year, our No to 65 campaign was backed in polls by more than three-quarters of the profession, and last July we took a petition signed by 1,700 GPs to 10 Downing Street. This time around, we’re planning to do even better. Our campaign aims to clearly articulate GPs’ arguments against the pension changes: that GPs are already on a career-average pension, that their contribution rates were renegotiated as recently as 2008, that they pay both employee and employer contributions, and that the NHS Pension Scheme is in a multi-million pound surplus.

Just as we did with No to 65, we will also gather the signatures of GPs on a petition to demonstrate their overwhelming support for these arguments.

GPs’ anger over pensions has sizzled for more than a year now, and it charged last week’s electric meeting of BMA Council on the options available for a ballot. The BMA’s choice of action – a single day when only emergency cover would be offered – has been strongly criticised by some GPs as too little, too late. It is certainly too late – and by going alone, without the cover that the earlier public-sector day of action would have provided, the BMA is leaving doctors exposed to the full fury of the press. GPs must support the proposed action, because otherwise they will leave the BMA’s future negotiations utterly lacking in teeth – but they should be aware that the media reaction will be brutal. This is a time for steel, and a crystal-clear message to the public – which is why we’re launching the latest stage in our campaign now.

But will a single day of action have any effect on a Government that appears resolved to fight battle after battle on pensions? Probably not, although GPs shouldn’t underestimate just how powerful a message it will send if doctors do withdraw a part of their labour for the first time since the 1970s. Ministers will surely at least wake from their complacency and begin to listen to the profession, but to get them back to the table may require the threat of something more. The BMA must make clear that this day of action is just the start, and that it can and will ballot again to extend its remit to other forms of protest.

And what forms of protest might then be most effective? Restricting services to emergency-only cover is pushing GPs uncomfortably close to strike action – and to accusations of putting patient care at risk. Future action may need to focus on areas less likely to attract nasty headlines.

The BMA has always been wary of aiming at the obvious target – the Government’s plans for GP commissioning – because of the intellectual dangers in conflating two different policy initiatives. But purist thinking like that doesn’t work when the Government chooses to play dirty. A threat to withdraw co-operation with commissioning would be powerful because of the unsettling effect it could have on NHS budgets. The Government may not listen to GPs, but it does have an ear for hard cash.