The BMA has outlined its plans for the first ballot on industrial action by doctors in 37 years to take place in May if there is no progress in talks over pension reforms.
The doctors’ trade union said it was making plans for a ballot if pension talks did not resume and it plans to ask NHS doctors across the UK whether they are willing to provide only urgent and emergency care for a 24-hour period.
Such a ballot on industrial action has not happened since 1975, but is indicative of how much the dispute has escalated between the government and the medical profession.
The NHS pension scheme was overhauled in 2008 to ensure it was fair to taxpayers and sustainable in the long term, but the government wants to change it again, meaning that many doctors would have to work until they were 68 and pay twice as much in contributions.
The BMA said its plans for industrial action would ensure that patient safety was the priority and doctors scheduled to be in work would go to their usual workplaces, and provide all emergency care and other care urgently needed, but would not undertake some duties that could safely be postponed.
Decisions about what could safely be postponed would be based on the professional judgement of doctors locally, said the BMA, with the association’s support and it was envisaged that as much advance notice as possible would be given to patients.
In reality, any action would involve the postponement of routine operations and non-urgent outpatient appointments in hospitals, said the BMA.
GP practices would remain open and staffed so they could see patients in need of urgent attention, but routine, non-urgent appointments would not be available on the day of action.
In January, 84% of the 46,300 doctors and medical students who responded to a BMA survey rejected the government’s changes, and more than six in ten said they were personally prepared to take industrial action.
The BMA said it was frustrated that the government had so far refused to take part in meaningful negotiations.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, BMA chairman of council, said: “We’re taking this step very reluctantly and only because the government will not engage with us to even try to find a fairer way forward. NHS staff agreed to major changes to their pensions only four years ago.
“There is still time for the government to rethink its plans, but if it does not, we have made a firm commitment that patient safety will be the over-riding priority. If we do go ahead, anyone whose condition required urgent or emergency care or investigation that day would be treated.”
Health minister Simon Burns said: “There is no justification for well-paid doctors to take industrial action. Industrial action is completely unacceptable because it would put patients at risk.
“Our proposals mean doctors will continue to receive pensions that are among the highest in the public or private sectors. Pension reform is necessary because people are living longer, healthier lives.”
The ballot is scheduled to open on 14 May and close on 29 May.