Senior NHS doctors in England are to be balloted on whether they would be prepared to strike over pay and pension issues.
The British Medical Association (BMA), the UK's biggest doctors' union, is to open an indicative ballot to examine whether consultants would consider taking action over pay and pension issues.
While it is not a formal ballot, it represents a significant escalation towards it, the BMA said.
The union said consultants have faced significant pay cuts, while many have left the NHS or cut back on their hours due to tax issues with pensions.
The consultative ballot of consultants in England will take place in February.
The BMA said the average consultant in England has experienced a “real-terms take-home pay cut of nearly 35% since 2008/09” and that thousands have faced “large additional tax bills on their pensions”.
It said the government “refuses to engage with the BMA on meaningful solutions”.
The union also called for the pay review process to be reformed after it accused the government of “interfering” with the Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration (DDRB).
Dr Vishal Sharma, chairman of the BMA consultants committee, said: “Despite repeatedly outlining our concerns to Government, ministers have been unwilling to act.
“The NHS is on its knees, patients are suffering and staff morale has never been lower.
“Senior doctors are cutting their hours or leaving the NHS in their droves, driven out of jobs they love by unfair pension tax rules and brutal cuts to their pay.
“This is having a catastrophic impact on the country’s health as waiting lists for treatment spiral out of control and patients struggle to get the care they need.”
He added: “Unless there is action by government to address consultants’ concerns, waiting lists will simply continue to hit new record highs and staff shortages will only worsen as more senior doctors leave the NHS.
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“The only way out of this crisis is to fix pay, fix pensions and fix the pay review body.
“Consultants would not take industrial action lightly, but, in the absence of meaningful solutions from government, we’ve been left with no option but to consult our members’ views on whether they wish for us to hold a formal ballot for industrial action.”
The indicative ballot of consultants in England will open on February 10 and close on February 27.
Meanwhile, around 45,000 junior doctors who are members of the union have also been balloted over strike action – with the result due at the end of February.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The threat of more strikes is alarming for an overstretched NHS already battling to cope with the effects of the most widespread industrial action in its history.
“The workforce is the lifeblood of the NHS. It can ill afford to lose dedicated people because of stressful workloads exacerbated by severe staff shortages in the face of ever-growing demand.
“Pay is one key aspect of recruiting and retaining the staff which the NHS so desperately needs, therefore it’s vital that the government sits down with the unions urgently to avert more strikes."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Industrial action is a matter for unions, and we urge them to carefully consider the potential impacts on patients.
“We accepted the independent pay review body recommendations in full this year, giving consultants a pay rise of 4.5% and increasing their average earnings to around £128,000. This is on top of a 3% pay rise last year when wider public sector pay was frozen.
“We are also making practical changes to NHS pension rules to retain more experienced clinicians and remove barriers to staff returning from retirement.”
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