NHS consultants could join the wave of strike action by healthcare workers after the British Medical Association (BMA) announced a ballot in February to test opinion among members. The outcome will be used to decide whether to proceed to a statutory ballot on industrial action.
The BMA described the move as a "significant escalation" in a dispute over pay and pensions. It claims that pay erosion means that senior doctors have seen real-terms pay cuts of almost 35% since 2008-09, whilst "punitive" pension tax rules have led to some consultants facing large bills for exceeding annual or lifetime allowances.
Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, maintained that as a result, thousands of senior doctors have reduced their hours or left the NHS, which was having "a catastrophic impact on the country’s health as waiting lists for treatment spiral out of control and patients struggle to get the care they need". He said: "Despite repeatedly outlining our concerns to Government, ministers have been unwilling to act."
More than 45,000 junior doctors in England who are members of the union are currently being balloted on industrial action in their pay dispute, with results expected from 20 February. A 'yes' vote could lead to a 72-hour walkout by junior doctors in March.
'Left With No Option'
Dr Sharma said: "The NHS is on its knees, patients are suffering, and staff morale has never been lower. Senior doctors are cutting their hours or leaving the NHS in their droves, driven out of jobs they love by unfair pension tax rules and brutal cuts to their pay." He insisted that consultants would not take industrial action lightly, but that "in the absence of meaningful solutions from Government, we’ve been left with no option but to consult our members’ views on whether they wish for us to hold a formal ballot for industrial action."
The indicative ballot among consultants will open on 10 February and close on 27 February, with the results fed back to the BMA's consultants committee for a decision on next steps.
The BMA reiterated its accusation that declining pay rates had been caused by Government interference with the Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration (DDRB) – a claim disputed by Whitehall.
Responding to the decision to ballot, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, called the threat of more strikes "alarming" in the wake of the current pressures facing the health service. She said: "The workforce is the lifeblood of the NHS. It can ill afford to lose dedicated people because of stressful workloads exacerbated by severe staff shortages in the face of ever-growing demand.
"Pay is one key aspect of recruiting and retaining the staff which the NHS so desperately needs therefore it’s vital that the government sits down with the unions urgently to avert more strikes. Meaningful pension reform for NHS staff is also essential and overdue, with temporary fixes by the Government so far failing to get to the root of the problem.
"The longer the Government puts off meaningful talks about this year’s pay award, which fell far short of what trust leaders and staff hoped to see, the worse the impact of industrial action on the NHS and patients will get."
MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care Committee are due to hear evidence later today from the chair of the NHS Pay Review Body, Philippa Hird, and from England's Health Secretary, Steve Barclay.