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Should doctors go on strike when the police cannot?

30 May 2012 #Employment

In a  major development in the public sector pensions dispute, with police officers campaigning in force for the right to strike, doctors have now voted for strike action. They will stop providing non-urgent care on 21 June  in the first industrial action by the profession for nearly 40 years. Some 79% of GPs, 84% of hospital consultants and 92% of junior doctors who responded voted in favour of strike action over pension changes.

The BMA say emergency care would still take place, as doctors did not want to put patients at risk.

Of those balloted, half responded. Among the main groups of doctors the results were overwhelming.

By targeting non-urgent care, patients are likely to be affected in this way:

  • Elective operations such as knee and hip replacements likely to be postponed
  • GP practices to remain open, but routine appointments will not take place
  • Hospital appointments for routine conditions expected to be cancelled
  • Tests for critical conditions such as cancer will still be available
  • A&E units and maternity services to run as normal

The government say they want the best-paid to subsidise the pensions of the lowest. Contributions will rise the greatest for the highest earners. Those earning over £110,000 a year will end up contributing 14.5% of their salary. Doctors argue that the top-paid civil servants will not be hit in the same way - and that perceived injustice has put the profession at loggerheads with the government.

Should doctors be able to go on strike?

On 10 May, more than 30,000 police officers marched through London in protest at proposed cuts their pay, pensions and changes to working conditions, with many demanding the right to go on strike. Since 1919 the police have been banned from taking industrial action. The other professions banned from taking industrial action are the armed forces, merchant seamen and prison officers. Doctors and other health care professionals are not prohibited from taking industrial action.

Some in the government may reignite the debate that there should be a complete removal of trade dispute immunity from those public sector workers performing essential services. We are certainly harking back to those arguments from 1978-9 and the “winter of discontent”.

A majority of the House of Commons Employment Committee has suggested binding arbitration to settle industrial disputes in the health sector.

Doctors should in any event be live to the threat of prosecution under the obscure provisions of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 which makes it an offence to knowingly or maliciously breach an employment contract knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the probable consequences will be to endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Clarkslegal, specialist Employment lawyers in London, Reading and throughout the Thames Valley.
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