NHS consultants in England have upped the stakes in their dispute over pay and pensions by indicating their support for a strike ballot this spring.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that 86% of senior hospital doctors who voted in a consultative ballot indicated their willingness to take part in industrial action unless the Government addressed their grievances. It served notice that unless ministers entered "meaningful negotiations" on a pay deal and a solution to the so-called pensions 'tax trap' by 3 April, the union would seek a legal mandate to strike.
A statutory ballot could open on 17 April unless ministers put forward "serious proposals" on improving pay.
Announcing the results of the consultative ballot, Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA consultants committee, said he had "never seen consultants more demoralised, frustrated, and in despair". He added: "Strike action is always a last resort and we have set out a clear timeline for the Government to put a serious proposal on the table."
In the ballot, which was launched on 10 February and closed on 27 February, 34,618 NHS consultants (about 60% out of a total of 58,279 consultants in the NHS in England) were entitled to vote. There were 21,031 votes cast, which was a turnout of 60.75%. Of those, 85.84% indicated they would be prepared to take part in strike action, and 14.16% said they were not.
Any future strike action by consultants was likely to involve a 'bank holiday service' on weekdays, in which cover for emergency or urgent care remained in place.
Pay and Pensions in Dispute
The BMA is seeking to rectify what it said was an average 35% real terms pay cut to consultants' pay since 2008-09. It has said that declining pay rates have been caused by Government interference with the Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration (DDRB) – a claim disputed by Whitehall.
The union has also insisted that any negotiated deal must also include a strategy to fix pensions rules that have led to some higher paid consultants facing "punitive" tax demands. Dr Sharma proposed that ministers "could implement a tax unregistered scheme, similar to the one it has already done for judges, in order to enable doctors to remain working in the NHS". Such a scheme would mean that benefits accrued would not count towards the annual or lifetime allowance.
Dr Sharma said: "The workforce crisis in the NHS is putting patient safety at risk as real terms pay cuts and punitive pension tax rules push doctors to consider reducing their hours or retire early. This means a significant loss of valuable skills and expertise to patient care and crucial mentoring to more junior doctors."
'Generous' Pension Scheme
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We hugely value the work of NHS consultants and they received a pay rise of 4.5% this financial year, increasing average earnings to around £128,000.
"The NHS Pension Scheme is one of the most generous available and we have taken steps to address the pension tax implications for senior clinicians. We have increased the annual allowance taper so that the amount of tax-free pension savings only reduces for individuals who earn over £200,000.
"We have submitted evidence to the independent Pay Review Body for the next financial year and we want to continue discussing with the BMA how we can make the NHS a better place to work."
Commenting on the ballot result, Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "This move by consultants is another worrying development for NHS trust leaders, on top of the looming 3-day strike by junior doctors. Strikes by consultants would heap yet more pressure on overstretched services. Patient safety and care is the top priority. Trust leaders urge the Government and the BMA to find a resolution quickly."