Today’s strike action by NHS doctors is in response to proposed pension changes. The government is negating previous agreements made in 2008 with doctors over their pension pots and final salaries. British Medical Association members across the UK are boycotting non urgent care only treating trauma and oncology cases. Elective cases have been cancelled and many GP surgeries have cancelled routine check-ups. Whilst inconvenient, provision has been made for patients truly in need of immediate care and patient safety will not be compromised.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley states that; “The BMA has failed to recognise the economic and political realities.” This is just not the case. Currently NHS doctors pension scheme adds a surplus to the Treasury. In 2008, doctors negotiated a reform that meant that any future element of risk was managed to guarantee sustainability. This reform meant that staff, not the taxpayer, would be responsible for any potential increased costs due to longer life expectancy. Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of Council at the BMA explains; “The scheme currently brings in £2 billion more than it pays out. Doctors are now being asked to work even longer, up to 68 years of age, and contribute even more, meaning doctors have to pay up to twice as much as civil servants on the same pay for the same pension. Doctors accept the need to play their part in improving public finances. We don’t expect better pensions or preferential treatment, just fair treatment.” This is the first time in 40 years that such industrial action has occurred. No doctor would undertake such action lightly.
This action has received mixed public support. This is partially due to the government’s attempts to scaremonger the public and utilise the medical requirements of the public as a tool to divide. However, this is also due to a perception that doctors may have less right to strike than other workers considered less fortunate in terms of salary and remuneration. When we lessen our support for strike action for some groups based upon such perceptions, we dilute the power of this action for all workers. We become party to a divisive weapon based upon a hierarchical mind set of which workers can justifiably strike.
It is important that we understand the experience behind the statistics. My husband is a surgeon. Listening to this morning’s news was particularly galling when a Twitter feed participant claimed that doctors are just being ‘greedy’ for taking strike action. For myself, there is no word less apt to describe my husband and his professional attitude. His own career path is the longest one within the medical profession. He first trained as a dentist and unlike many of his fellow graduates he pursued a hospital route instead of going into practice, post degree. To continue within his chosen field he was required to undertake five more years at university to study medicine, at our cost. This career path required numerous professional qualifications and a total of twenty one year’s study. During his house officer years his working week regularly exceeded ninety hours. On call provision means phone calls through the night, fumbling at 3am to find clothes to get to the hospital in a timely manner to tend to a patient and numerous trips into the hospital on days off to check if “Mrs X” is doing okay. There are far easier ways to make money and the insinuation of greed is abhorrent. My husband is neither unique nor is he unusual, many of his colleagues display the same level of dedication to their patients, their speciality and their colleagues.
The argument is not with the public, it is with the government. The government’s tactic to claim that doctors are being irresponsible to patients is particularly interesting when we consider no such outcry occurred when operations and clinics were cancelled for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Medical professionals have endured years of failed governmental policies intended to improve NHS services, when in actual fact they have exacerbated existing concerns, often creating new problems. This is a war of propaganda. We must not divide on this issue. NHS doctors are workers. They too are engaged in a battle against austerity and governmental moves to dilute their pension pots. Their fight is our fight.