Ballot to ask members of Scotland’s BMA whether they want to take industrial action, leading to cancelled operations
Alex Salmond is facing the embarrassment of strike action by thousands of Scottish hospital doctors in a sharp escalation of the dispute over the reforms of NHS pensions.
The Scottish branch of the British Medical Association is balloting 10,000 members working in hospitals about striking for the first time in decades. BMA officials said the union had lost patience with Salmond’s government over its handling of the pensions dispute.
The dispute, which will only affect the NHS in Scotland, would involve operations being cancelled or postponed, specialist clinics closed and hospitals reduced to providing just emergency cover for three days in December and January. In June, tens of thousands of doctors across the UK took part in industrial action, refusing to provide non-emergency care for 24 hours, in the first industrial action by the profession since 1975.
BMA officials said on Monday they had become increasingly irritated by the SNP government’s refusal to use its discretionary powers to soften the impact of UK-wide changes to doctors’ pensions, which include higher contributions, of up 14.5% of their pay, and longer working lives.
Scottish ministers have repeatedly criticised the reforms, attacking the Westminster coalition government, but the BMA said it was not holding honest, meaningful talks about softening the impact of the reforms. Although NHS pensions policy is controlled by UK ministers, the Scottish government has the power to vary contribution rates and it may have the power to change the retirement age.
The Treasury has told the Edinburgh government it can set lower contribution rates but would have to fund the shortfall itself – a cost the Scottish government has refused to accept.
Dr Nikki Thompson, deputy chair of the BMA’s Scottish consultants committee, said: “This is not where we set out to be, strike action is only ever a last resort but the intransigence of this Scottish government has left us with little option but to press ahead with a ballot for further industrial action.
“With their outspoken opposition to these plans and a commitment to negotiations, ministers have raised the expectations of NHS staff.”
A final decision on whether to authorise strike action will be taken by the BMA’s UK council on 28 November; it is expected to support action only if a large majority is in favour. However, Scottish GPs have opted not to join the strike, suggesting there is disagreement within the medical profession about further industrial action.
Alex Neil, the Scottish health secretary, said he was disappointed with the strike ballot and implied they were walking out of active discussions on resolving the dispute. “We have been negotiating in good faith since March 2012, and therefore, we see no justification for industrial action,” he said.
“While I do not support industrial action, I have made abundantly clear our opposition to the UK government’s policy to increase employee contributions at this time and in this way.”
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