The BMA announced last night after a Council meeting that it will ballot members from 14 to 29 May if the government does not re-enter talks over planned pension reforms. It is the first time BMA members have been balloted since 1975.
The ballot will ask members if they are prepared to offer only urgent and emergency care for a 24-hour period.
It will also ask doctors if they are prepared to take full strike action. Although this has already been ruled out.
To ensure greater legal protection it is necessary for the BMA to ask doctors to consider both options, because technically offering emergency cover only could be interpreted as strike action, the BMA said.
The union is seeking a mandate to ensure that emergency-only cover is the only option that members could take following a ballot. It has already ruled out any full withdrawal of doctors’ labour.
Questions on the ballot
BMA pensions committee deputy chairman Dr David Bailey said that the BMA would ask doctors to answer yes to both questions on the ballot.
He explained that although the BMA had no intention of calling for a withdrawal of labour, the way that hospital doctors' contracts work meant that if they did decide to only offer urgent and emergency cover for a day it could be interpreted as strike action.
Therefore the BMA needs to be able to say that it has balloted members for strike action, and members have accepted it, in order for hospital doctors to be able to take part in the planned form of industrial action, Dr Bailey said.
The BMA said that decisions about what could be postponed safely would be based on the professional judgement of doctors locally who, with the support of the BMA, would aim to work with employers, so that as much advance notice can be given to patients as possible.
It would mean that 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 hospitals the action is likely to mean the postponement of routine operations and non-urgent outpatient appointments.
Dr Bailey said that the action would be less impactful in general practice, but that was ‘absolutely right’ because GPs had no way for telling how serious a patient’s condition was before seeing them.
‘It’s slightly easier in secondary care because often you have already seen the patient and know serious their condition is,’ he said.
The BMA stressed that with any form of action patient safety was the priority and therefore the impact on patients of the day of action would be reviewed before a decision to proceed with further action was made.
BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum 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.
‘As a result, the scheme is delivering £2bn to the Treasury each year and staff have taken on sole responsibility for covering increases in costs due to improvements in longevity in the future. Now the government wants to tear up a deal reached through genuine negotiation and impose these further, unnecessary changes.
‘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.
‘All doctors due to be in work would still be in their usual workplaces. We would aim to work with managers, and other NHS staff to try to ensure as much notice and information about what was happening on the day as possible.’
Once the ballot closes on 29 May, BMA Council will make a decision on what to do next. The BMA is holding a number of workplace events around the UK to give members information about the pensions ballot and the opportunity to ask questions. Pension roadshows, which were postponed earlier this month, are currently being rescheduled.
Responding to the announcement health minister Simon Burns said: ‘There is no justification for well-paid doctors to take industrial action. The first responsibility of all NHS staff must to be help patients. 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. A doctor joining the new scheme after 2015 could expect a pension of around £68,000 per year at state retirement age.’