Thousands of doctors have gone on strike for the first time in 40 years today in protest at government changes to their pensions.
Routine hospital appointments, non-emergency operations and GP surgeries have all been disrupted, although A&E units and maternity departments remain open.
The scale of the action is unclear but the British Medical Association – which represents two-thirds of doctors – estimates that one-third of its 100,000 members are taking part in the 24-hour stoppage, which was backed by 80 per of voters on a 50 per cent turnout last month.
The NHS normally conducts 240,000 hospital appointments and 36,000 non-urgent operations each day, while GP surgeries see around 1.5 million people.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley has condemned the strike, saying: “I can't see why anybody thinks there is any benefit in penalising patients. It won’t serve any purpose whatsoever.”
Under government proposals, doctors will have to work until 68 rather than 65, and make bigger contributions to earn a pension worth £68,000 a year. Employee contributions will increase to as much as 14.5 per cent of salary for the highest paid individuals.
The BMA has accused the Department of Health of making “misleading” claims about the NHS pension scheme placing a disproportionate burden on lower salaried staff such as nurses, and said that today’s industrial action was not intended to target the public.
The association added that it was not seeking to alter the fact that doctors pay in more than those earning less, but pointed out that doctors had already accepted higher personal contributions and an increased pension age during reforms made to their pension plan in 2008.
“The NHS pension scheme does not work by building up a ‘pension pot’ – staff working now pay for the pensions of NHS staff who are retired. Doctors rightly pay more than lower paid workers and we are not seeking to change that,” said BMA council chairman Hamish Meldrum.
“Mr Lansley’s repeated and blatantly misleading comments about the NHS pension dispute only set back what he purports to seek to achieve – a quick resolution.”
NHS Employers said that today’s walkout would test organisations’ plans to protect urgent and emergency care in the case of such an event.
“This is a day when we all need to recognise our first priority to patients, avoid further distress to them and return to providing the care and service we can have pride in,” continued Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers.
“We need to keep our collective focus on returning to constructive and trusting working relationships as soon as possible.”