BMA Council decided it would ballot members on industrial action short of a strike over proposed reforms to the NHS pension scheme.
The decision comes after a BMA survey found that 80% of the 46,000 members who responded said the government’s offer should be rejected, and nearly two thirds said they were willing to take industrial action to achieve a fairer deal.
GP and BMA Council member Dr Helena McKeown said that discussions on what form action could take would happen this week, with the GPC discussing what type of industrial action GPs could take at its meeting on Tuesday.
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said that the BMA was likely to ballot ‘by craft’ which could mean that GPs as a profession are balloted on a different form of industrial action from consultants, for example.
Dr Vautrey said that the BMA would be careful to only consider action that would not affect patient care. ‘That is why the suggestion of strike action was rejected. We need to try to ensure that we keep patients involved and on our side,’ Dr Vautrey said.
A GP survey recently revealed that over half (55%) of GPs would be prepared to work to rule and 42% would ‘work without enthusiasm’.
Dr McKeown it was likely that council members were aware of the survey results when making their decision to ballot on Saturday. ‘I was aware of it and I am sure that all of the GPs in the BMA Council were aware of it,’ she said.
Dr McKeown said that the BMA would have to follow industrial action procedure before it moved to ballot members.
She said the BMA would discuss branch of practice action for a week, and then seek legal advice.
There is then a statutory notice period in which employers, including GP partners, must be made aware of the intention to ballot.
She said that once the BMA had given notice of its intention to ballot there was a tight time frame in which the ballot would have to take place.
Dr Vautrey said that the decision to ballot members had been made reluctantly, and there was ‘every chance’ that the ballot would be called off, if the government entered into meaningful talks responded to the concerns of the profession.
‘No one wins from industrial action,’ he said.
BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said: 'Taking industrial action remains a last resort and we urge the government to work with us – and the other health unions – to find a fairer way forward.
'Should industrial action be necessary, the priority would be to limit disruption and prevent harm to patients. That is why we have completely ruled out strike action and are committed to reviewing the risks for patients at every stage.'
Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, advised staff to wait for the government to publish its full, final details of the pension proposal before voting in ballots.
‘I understand the anxiety of staff about changes to pensions. But this announcement will be disconcerting for patients and disappointing to the majority staff who recognise the importance of the essential services they provide and the impact industrial action will have on patient care,’ he said.
Responding to the announcement health secretary Andrew Lansley said: ‘There is no justification for industrial action - it would harm patients. We have been holding weekly discussions with all the trade unions, including the BMA and it is premature for them to ballot their members on industrial action - no concessions will be won through these threats.
‘Our proposals are a fair deal for staff and taxpayers and make public service pensions affordable and sustainable. The normal retirement age was increased to 65 in 2008 with the BMA's agreement. Our offer links that with the state retirement age of 68 - because people are living longer.