Dr Richard Vautrey, who was elected chair of the BMA’s UK and England GP committees earlier this month, said he would not advise practices how to vote in the indicative ballot which ends on 10 August.
Practices are being asked to say whether they would be prepared collectively to temporarily suspend new patient registrations and/or apply to their commissioner for a formal list closure, as a form of industrial action.
The decision to ballot the profession was agreed by LMC representatives at their annual conference in Edinburgh in May in response to the failure of NHS England’s GP Forward View to deliver resources to sustain the service.
GP industrial action
If practices vote 'yes' to action in the indicative ballot, the GPC will ask the BMA council to review the results and consider a formal ballot.
Dr Vautrey, who described his election and subsequent support as humbling and heartening, said that the indicative ballot was a test of the profession’s opinion. ‘We want to be in a position to know exactly what practices would be prepared to do before ultimately we then go to a formal ballot should that be what practices wanted to do,' he said.
GP leaders did not want to find themselves in the same position as in the 2012 action over pensions, Dr Vautrey said. ‘Many GPs were saying they wanted to take action, they would be prepared to take action,' he explained. 'But when the BMA actually took action very few doctors were prepared to join us in that action.’
‘If we are going to do something we need to be absolutely confident that practices are behind us,' he said.
Asked if he was prepared the lead the profession in industrial action Dr Vautrey said: ‘Yes, we will do what practices want us to do. That's what we're here to do. We're here to listen to what practices say, what GPs are saying, and then to take the actions within the law that we can actually do.
‘And so if we did get a strong message back from practices that this is what they wanted to do, then we would then go through the necessary processes, bound by trade union law, to ask practices formally about industrial action.’
The Leeds GP said he had been one of those who had taken action in the 2012 pensions dispute.
Standing up for GPs
‘So if it comes to it then yes, I will be there, speaking up for GPs, defending GPs and their right to take action, if that's what practices want us to do, but we're a long way from that yet.’
The BMA had shown in last year’s junior doctors dispute that the union was ‘prepared to take action if our members want that action to be pursued'. He added: 'And if we do do that then we would do it with the utmost vigour.'
But he added that GPs must be aware of the risks. Whatever the outcome of the ballot, he said, the government cannot ignore the fundamental problems of work pressure, workforce and underfunding that have created such anger and frustration among GPs and which must be addressed.
Dr Vautrey, who served as deputy under the two past GPC chairs, said his leadership was not about continuity. ‘I think what we've done before won't be good enough in the future. We recognise that and I recognise that we have to change,' he said.
The GPC had to respond to the rapid changes happening to the service by starting to lead the agenda.
‘In many cases we've been too willing to just hope that somebody else will do something for us,' he said. ‘Well actually the contract that we have - the independent contractor status - enables us to make independent decisions which can help to control things and limit things and change things for the better within our own working life
'So that is something that we need to look at more and take some control over what we're doing more, and be more confident about doing that and making those decisions and sticking to them.’