It is hard not to have some sympathy for Scottish doctors.
They announced yesterday they are to conduct a ballot for further industrial action, in Scotland only for the first time, in respect of changes to their pension scheme. Only four years ago, they agreed to new terms, which involved substantial increases in employee contributions. Now the UK Government is asking for further changes, involving more increases in contributions and the possibility of working up to age 68.
The pressure on Scotland's doctors is mounting for a number of reasons: successive rounds of "efficiency savings", which cut closer and closer to the bone; the rising numbers of elderly patients; more patients with complex conditions such as diabetes; and the fallout from deep cuts in local authority services. It is easy to understand the anger and frustration of a modestly paid junior doctor, run ragged by staffing shortages and facing the prospect of wielding the stethoscope or scalpel for more than four decades before retirement. (Patients too may not relish the prospect of a doctor in his or her dotage making major decisions about their treatment.)
The Scottish Government has been happy enough to make political capital out of the situation by accusing the Coalition of a "short-term cash grab" and yet has not been able to offer Scottish doctors a better deal, despite having the power to do so. So much for Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.
However, there is another side to this story. It is unwise to consider industrial action without being able to count on public support. By most standards, doctors are well-paid, especially senior doctors, many of whom can afford to top up their pension pots and hold investments to bolster their retirement income. Also, their pensions are still well beyond what most of their patients can look forward to. The doctors' scheme retains defined benefits, at a time when thousands of private sector workers have been forced to cope with the uncertainty of defined contribution pensions. And though the doctors' scheme is currently in surplus, there is no guarantee that this will continue as the babyboomer generation moves into retirement. Partly because of their own skills, doctors too are living longer in a way that affects even relatively recent actuarial calculations.
Significantly, general practitioners appear to have reservations about taking further industrial action. Could that be partly because they know their patients and realise that public sympathy for their cause would be limited?
Though doctors undertake to cover emergencies throughout any industrial action, that is cold comfort to patients waiting in pain for non-urgent operations, which perhaps have been postponed once or more already. For them three more days of industrial action means three more days of pain.
Unlike a number of other professions, doctors continue to be held in high regard. They would be unwise to risk that by taking precipitate action.
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