A DOCTORS strike that would have caused major disruption to patients in Scottish hospitals this winter has been called off after consultants refused to back the action.
The British Medical Association has ruled out stoppages which were due to start in December after a ballot of members failed to win enough support.
Health Secretary Alex Neil and opposition politicians welcomed the climbdown by the BMA in the long-running dispute over pension reforms.
Doctors across the UK took part in a strike earlier this year about the same issue, but further action was suspended for talks with Westminster. Only the BMA in Scotland decided to go it alone and plan a second bout of more disruptive walkouts. If they had gone ahead, most hospital doctors would have stayed at home on strike days, leaving the level of emergency cover typical of a bank holiday.
Earlier this autumn Dr Lewis Morrison, chairman of the BMA's Scottish Consultants Committee, said this was the only way to make the Scottish Government listen to their concerns.
Yesterday, however, the union ballot revealed opinion among consultants was divided, with 756 voting against a strike and 734 in favour. While other medical professionals were more willing to boycott work – 72% of junior doctors who voted were prepared to strike – the BMA said there was not enough support to mount effective action. In total, 1368 doctors voted in favour and 1103 against.
Turnout across all groups of clinicians was less than 50%. GPs were excluded from the vote.
Doctors were asked "Are you prepared to take part in industrial action short of a strike?" and "Are you prepared to take part in a strike?"
Dr Alan Robertson, chairman of the BMA's UK pensions committee, said a higher turnout "would have helped matters".
He added: "When I spoke to people on the ground I think there was a fatigue in general with things that are happening. For consultants, pensions is one thing and they have other things they are also angry about. It leaves a feeling of frustration, but they almost cannot be bothered striking. They feel they just need to get on with their job."
There was strong support for industrial action short of a strike among BMA hospital members, with a total of 1794 in favour and 679 against, but Mr Robertson said there was no intention to organise any alternative protest at this stage.
Under the pension reforms, which have been led by Westminster, NHS staff will have to pay higher contributions and work later in life. The BMA in Scotland had hoped to persuade the Scottish Government to use devolved powers to revise these changes. Mr Robertson indicated there was now little chance of movement on the first matter – saying doctors picked up a "vibe" that striking would make no difference to the hike in pension contributions. He is more hopeful of talks about the issue of retirement age.
Mr Neil said: "I welcome the news that the BMA in Scotland has decided against industrial action. We are actively involved in discussions with the BMA and other NHS trade unions, and we will continue to work in partnership with them to find a way forward on pensions issues."
He added the Scottish Government believed pension reforms should not be imposed by the Treasury.
Jackson Carlaw, health spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said: "I'm delighted doctors have shown more sense than the BMA, which was actively urging them to take strike action. Thankfully, the doctors who said no have their attention trained on their patients rather than their wallets."