The BMA has entered into discussions with other health unions over proposed pension reforms, not ruling out the possibility of industrial action.
Although industrial action may be a long way off, according to the BMA, GPs are legally allowed to strike.
Legally GPs, like all other workers in the UK, are entitled to take strike (withholding labour) or industrial action (which encompasses going slow, work-to-rule and overtime bans).
So what form could industrial action take?
FDA chairman Dr Peter Swinyard said there were a number of things that GPs could do to ‘cause the government discomfort’ without seriously affecting patient care. However, Dr Swinyard was careful to say that the suggestions were not recommendations and that all decisions on industrial action would be taken by the BMA. Some suggestions might be a breach of GPC guidance or even a breach of contract, Dr Swinyard warned.
One possible form of industrial action could be to prescribe more expensive brand name drugs to patients, Dr Swinyard said.
‘We could blow budgets out of the sky within a month by prescribing much more expensive drugs, and using brand names,’ Dr Swinyard said.
Dr Swinyard said that this was a preferred option because it would not affect patient care, ‘patients would be just as well but it would cause a great deal of inconvenience for the government'.
Another option would be not signing death certificates Dr Swinyard said.
‘This is not just an issue that affects GP, it affects all doctors and if we all agree not to sign death certificates there will be no burials or cremations,’ Dr Swinyard said.
‘Refusing to do sick notes for government employees would be another option,’ Dr Swinyard said, ‘or we could sign off all government employees for three months,’ he added.
GPs could become ‘risk averse’ and refer a more patients for a second opinion.
Or GPs could withdraw from running clinical commissioning groups. ‘They could simply say 'sorry, we’re not doing that',' Dr Swinyard said.
In 1966 doctors took strike action and collected undated resignation letters from the entire profession. This tactic could work again, Dr Swinyard said.
Despite mounting anger over pension reforms, Dr Swinyard said that the priority for GPs would be to ensure that patient care was not harmed.
‘The BMA would not ask us to go down this route unless it was absolutely necessary,’ Dr Swinyard said.
Dr Swinyard said that he would be ‘very very sad’ to have to resort to industrial action.
However he was positive that if doctors did have to resort to industrial action, the government would listen.
So far the government has listened to many of the profession’s concerns and has built a good relationship with doctors, Dr Swinyard said.
‘I think the government is more reasonable that it likes to think it is,’ he added.