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Britain: BMA strike - The Truth

Sat 14th Jul 2012

In the days leading up to the one day doctors’ ‘strike’ on the 21st June, the vitriol was in the air. A number of mainstream papers, supposedly representative of the wide swathe of public opinion in the UK, took pot shots at the democratic rights of the BMA and the ‘audacity’ of the medical profession.

From the Daily Mail to the Independent, the rhetoric of coercion, guilt and blame could be seen both before and after the one day industrial action. In a commentary piece printed on 17th June, the Daily Mail made reference to ‘handsomely paid NHS doctors’ belonging to the ‘militant British Medical Association’. In its usual hurry to demonise a group, and create antipathy in the less than broad minds of its readers, the paper did what it does best. The title of this commentary piece was ‘Striking doctors will destroy public trust... and it might never return’.

Perhaps not so surprising that a paper whose former owner Viscount Rothermere had a cosy relationship with a certain German dictator during the 1930s still has a habit of misdirecting public frustration against minority groups often too small or too poor to fight back. (First they came for the immigrants…)

More careful observers may have noted that the apparently ‘militant’ BMA (I wish) is hardly a regular when it comes to calling for industrial action. The last time members of the BMA did anything similar was back in November 1975 when junior doctors took action over the introduction of new contracts meaning they would be doing an extortionate amount of overtime. Then, as now, the medical profession did not abandon any of its patients. In 1975, during the strike junior doctors worked a maximum of only 40 hours a week in addition to dealing with any emergency cases. This time around, the story was similar.

Despite healthcare unions agreeing to the implementation of a rise in pension contributions and an extension of the retirement age from 60 to 65 back in 2008, only a few years later the Coalition returned to cut further and deeper. Consistent with its attacks on public sector workers across the board, they demanded the retirement age for NHS workers rise from 65 to 68 before they be allowed to collect their full pension. Additionally, under new plans doctors will pay an even larger amount in pension contributions each month to receive a smaller sum on retirement. The rise will see some doctors paying up to 14.5% of their pay into the pension pot. Those early in their careers will be most affected.

The BMA spent many months engaged in discussions with the government requesting they rethink their plans. During this time, prior to any ballot, the BMA surveyed its members to gauge their views about the pension changes and their willingness to take any kind of action should negotiations fail. Once dialogue proved fruitless, ballot papers were sent to all 104,544 union members asking the following two questions:

a) Are you prepared to take part in industrial action short of a strike?

b) Are you prepared to take part in a strike?


Across the six different branches of medical practitioners balloted, there was a turnout of 49.8%. Of the 12,060 junior doctors who voted, 92.3% answered yes to question 1 and 81.92% to question 2. In total, an average of 70% of doctors across the board voted for full strike action.

All BMA members were expressly told to attend their place of work on the 21st June with strict instructions that they treat all ill patients and deal with any emergency cases as they would any other day. Some non-urgent tasks, such as routine clinics, were postponed. These and other tasks may well have been postponed anyway if a doctor were ill or busy dealing with emergencies. The largely symbolic industrial action also saw doctors wearing armbands or holding placards outside a hospital during their lunch hour.

A colleague of mine commented that she and all her colleagues ensured patients were adequately cared for. The vast majority of doctors I know would not good conscience allow any patients under their care to suffer harm or neglect.

Contrary to how some ministers or media outlets portrayed the situation, the NHS was not going to collapse nor were patients going to suffer on the 21st June. It is probably quite realistic to suggest that the action had less impact on services than a weekend or a bank holiday, when there are far fewer doctors working shifts compared to Monday to Friday. I’m still looking out for articles that blame William and Kate’s wedding and the Diamond Jubilee for crippling the NHS.

Andrew Lansley criticised the BMA calling the action ‘pointless’, a term that could well be applied to a number of his party’s own ideas. He added that ‘All the BMA is doing is creating uncertainty, discomfort and difficulty for patients, most of whom could only dream of getting a pensions like theirs’. Granted that doctors receive better pensions than most public sectors workers but in line with his party’s ideology, Lansley evokes the rhetoric of ‘race to the bottom’ and divide and conquer. Many public sectors workers have paltry salaries and pensions, their pay should be increased.

The attempts to strong arm doctors into abandoning the strike plays on Lansley’s knowledge that doctors, like other healthcare workers, would not wish to do anything to put their patients at risk. His comments take irony to a new level as many doctors are fighting to defend the NHS from the very forces that accuse them of damaging it. Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act allows for the slow and steady carve up of the NHS in a manner of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The Secretary of State for Health should really have thought twice before accusing anyone of ‘creating uncertainty, discomfort and difficulty for patients.’

The day of action was largely symbolic and the ‘strike’ action did not fit the pattern of that normally undertaken by unions such as the RMT or the PCS. Nevertheless, doctors not only made their point but also stuck to their principles of putting the patient first in order that no one requiring emergency care be made to suffer on account of a situation brought on by ineptitude of the Coalition. The thought of putting patients before profit is something that Mr Lansley and co might do well to consider.

Tomasz Pierscionek is an Academic Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry and co-editor of the London Progressive Journal. This article first appeared in Socialist Appeal http://www.socialist.net/bma-strike-the-truth.htm
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