Can a doctor ever really go on strike?

Doctors claim their pensions produce a £2bn surplus for the treasury. Photo: PA

Can a doctor ever really go on strike? Surely a doctor's duty forbids turning away patients in need of care?

Those are the questions I'm pondering in the run-up to the BMA's day of action on 21st June. A couple of weeks ago, doctors voted pretty overwhelming to hold the day of action in protest at the government's proposals for their pensions.

Doctors are extremely upset (to put it mildly) that they will have to pay more into their pension pots and will not retire until they're 68. They claim their pensions were reformed in 2008 and now produce a surplus of £2 billion for the treasury.

The government claims doctors want to be a special case - that other health unions have accepted new plans for pensions and there's no reason doctors shouldn't do the same.

And opinion polls so far suggest the public are not in sympathy with the doctors' claims. They'll still be getting pensions in excess of £50,000 - roughly doubly the average wage. In one poll 62 per cent opposed the doctors' action.

But how can they go on strike? Well, they won't. The proposal is that doctors turn up as usual for work but don't accept any booked consultations. They will treat patients who think they are in urgent need of treatment (whether or not the doctor agrees) and they will carry out all emergency services.

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One GP told me he voted for the day of action to send a message to Andrew Lansley, but that come the day, he will be working as normal. It's also complicated because many GPs are contracted to provide a service to Primary Care Trusts - they're not salaried. And they're unclear what those PCTs will do if they support the action. Make no mistake, doctors are very angry indeed about what they see not only as an assault on their pensions, but also an attack on the NHS - they claim worse pensions will mean doctors leaving the NHS.

But equally, its pretty certain that any industrial action is going to be pretty tepid and calculated to do minimal or no harm to patients. Just imagine what the Daily Mail would say if they could find just one patient whose treatment was damaged by action on the 21st!!