Doctors vote to take industrial action over pensions

BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum

So, much to the surprise of some, BMA members have voted to strike. In a pretty good turnout as these things go, doctors have said that yes, they would take industrial action short of a strike, and yes, they would strike too.

The issue, of course, is pensions – the UK government wants to change the NHS pension scheme; the BMA and its membership don’t want it to, hence today’s ballot result.

So will our men (and women) in white coats (and scrubs) be digging out the braziers and manning the picket lines? Well, at the time of writing (Wednesday morning) we don’t actually know. The BMA’s national council is pondering where to go next in a special meeting likely to go on until this afternoon.

What is most unlikely is a strike in the sense that it is usually understood. The exact details are doubtless being worked out, but, in the lead up to the ballot, the BMA said it would involve things like not treating non-urgent cases, such as elective surgery. Doctors would be at work as usual, but would basically be doing things that couldn’t wait – dealing with emergencies, carrying out vital treatment, that sort of thing. Technically – legally – this could be construed as “strike” action, hence the second question on the ballot paper to protect those taking part.

So how has it got to this point?

When it comes to doctors’ pensions, there are a lot of figures – some conflicting – to consider. The BMA, for example, says the government’s proposed changes will mean that doctors will have to pay more, for longer, to get less of a pension at the end. The UK government on the other hand points out that the average consultant retiring at the moment has a pension of more than £48,000 per year and a tax-free lump sum of more than £140,000 – and says that under the new scheme, a 40-year-old consultant will have to work an extra two-and-a-half years to get the same.

As a freelancer who pays around 10 per cent of earnings into a private pension every month (with the hope of receiving, ooh, tuppence farthing a week if I retire age 95), you might not expect me to have much sympathy for well-paid public servants, including doctors and, say, senior NHS managers, who will, even under the new scheme, retire much better off than the rest of us (unless we’re judges or MPs, but that’s an argument for another day).

On the other hand, writing for BMA News, a weekly magazine for doctors, obviously I hear the arguments on the other side as well. For example, the BMA points out that the NHS pension scheme is in rude financial health; that it was reformed in 2008 and that doctors agreed to up their contributions then to make sure that the scheme was sustainable, not just for doctors, but for the lower paid, including domestic staff and porters.

The union (and we mustn’t ever forget that the BMA is a union, much like Unison or Unite, and as such has its members’ interests at heart) is also fed up because the government has pressed ahead with taking increased contributions from doctors’ pay packets without agreement. The Scottish government, incidentally, has said that it doesn’t agree with the UK government action on pensions, but is going along with it anyway for its own financial reasons.

So who has the right of it? Well it’s easy to sneer at senior public sector workers (including doctors) for their “gold-plated pensions”, and yes, even after the government’s reforms, the NHS scheme will offer a better deal than you can get in the private sector. It’s easy, too, to point out that private companies have been closing their final salary schemes and replacing them with much less generous terms. It’s also easy, particularly in the current financial climate, to say that doctors should think they’re bloody lucky to have a relatively highly paid and interesting job, with rather more job security than many (although that could well change if some of the UK government’s other proposals come to pass).

But surely that kind of carping is looking at things the wrong way. Why should we grudge other people having good pensions, just because we don’t? Shouldn’t the solution be to work to ensure that everyone has a great deal in retirement, rather than insist that all join the race for the bottom? And don’t say we can’t afford it: Britain remains one of the richest countries in the world, although sometimes you really wouldn’t think it.

Doctors are angry – today’s ballot results show that very clearly. Perhaps the rest of us should get angry as well.

– BMA ballot results in full.