By Matthew Barrett
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The Guardian reports this morning that the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has a plan to help conquer the huge backlog of patients – up to 1.25 million - denied an appointment next Thursday thanks to the first doctors' strike since 1975. Mr Lansley wants doctors to work next Saturday, to help prevent the backlog being carried over for weeks after the strike.
Mr Lansley's letter to the chairman of the BMA, Hamish Meldrum, says:
"As GPs are self-employed, I would also ask your members who are GPs that they consider working on Saturday 23 June to clear the backlog of appointments they will have created by their action on 21 June. As you know, the action GPs will take could potentially displace up to 1.25m appointment bookings in primary care into the days and weeks following your strike – including appointments for some 140,000 children."
Mr Lansley has also warned that hospitals may have to postpone up to 30,000 planned operations, 58,000 diagnostic tests and over 200,000 outpatient appointments. This new letter to the BMA claims that 1,350 people waiting to have a cataract removed, and 700 elderly patients needing a hip or knee replacement will be disrupted by the strike.
There is, as with every letter from a Minister to a union leader such as this one, a veneer of practicality masking a political attack. Mr Lansley knows the impact of the strike is not likely to be quite as drastic as that – those who voted against the strike are still set to turn up to work on Thursday, and the BMA only represents two-thirds of doctors in the first place, and even some of the doctors on strike will be at their surgeries, and are likely to see some patients, according to a leading doctor quoted by the Guardian. However, it is still right that Mr Lansley makes the gesture of telling doctors to make up for their strike action.
Hamish Meldrum's response to Mr Lansley has been inadequate. His reply to those attacking the strike is:
"Tens of thousands of grassroots doctors feel so strongly that the changes to their pension scheme are unfair and unnecessary that they have decided to take industrial action – the first time in almost 40 years. Doctors know the industrial action they take cannot be the same industrial action taken by any other work force. This is why doctors will be in their usual workplaces and patient safety remains their top priority."
As I said last month, Mr Lansley is entirely correct to reform GPs' pensions. At present, the average consultant retiring at 60 will receive a pension of over £48,000 a year for life, and a tax free lump sum of around £143,000, which equates to a pension of nearly £2 million. Even under the new proposals, a doctor can expect a pension of over £53,000 at age 65, and doctors will remain amongst the best-paid workers in the public sector. Doctors are living longer (which is partially their own fault…) and so their pension scheme must be adjusted. The strike is insensitive at a time when many worse-off public and private sector workers are getting by as best they can (and without extremely generous pensions), and doctors putting a shift in next Saturday would be a good way to begin making up for it.