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Prescription for sanity: 90% of doctors snub their union and keep on workingIn the end only 11,500 took part in the British Medical Association's protest Strike led to the cancellation of 2,700 operations and 18,750 consultationsBMA admitted that doctors had been 'struggling with their consciences'
22:59 GMT, 21 June 2012
More than 90 per cent of doctors defied union orders to strike yesterday – deciding their patients must come first.
Thousands of GPs and hospital medics who had initially voted for industrial action appeared to back down on the day.
In the end only 11,500 took part in the British Medical Association's protest over changes to pensions.
Call for action: Hamish Meldrum, chairman of The British Medical Association, said doctors' fight should not be with patients but with the Government
But fears of more widespread support meant tens of thousands of operations – ranging from cataracts to hip replacements and heart bypass surgery – were needlessly cancelled in advance.
As it turned out, many patients given a postponed date could have been treated yesterday. Some have been told they will now not go into theatre for another three months.
The BMA insisted it had tried to 'minimise' the impact on patients and that anyone whose condition was life-threatening or urgent would be seen.
Figures from the Department of Health revealed that the strike led to the cancellation of 2,700 operations and a further 18,750 consultations.
The protest also meant a quarter of GP practices – 2,000 surgeries – refused to accept patients unless it was urgent.
Campaigners accused doctors of being 'incredibly callous' for causing distress to patients.
The strike snub suggested that thousands of doctors who had voted to take part subsequently had second thoughts. More than 80 per cent of those who responded to the BMA's ballot last month backed industrial action.
Strike action: Only 11,500 took part in the British Medical Association's protest over changes to pensions
But, as not all doctors voted – and many don't even belong to the union – this works out as about 40,000 of the 150,000 doctors in England.
If only 11,500 took part in the strike, nearly 30,000 who initially said yes appear to have changed their minds.
In recent days even senior members of the BMA admitted that doctors had been 'struggling with their consciences'.
Dr Mark Sanford-Wood, chairman of the union's GP branch in Devon, said some of his colleagues had been having 'second thoughts'.
Despite the low turnout, patient groups remained highly critical of the strike.
Concerned: Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: 'We asked doctors to recognise that their quarrel was not with patients but with the Government.'
Roger Goss, director of Patient Concern, said it was a 'very sad day' for the profession. 'The protest has been motivated by greed and selfishness,' he said.
'I cannot understand how a profession who are meant to be so bright can be so stupid. They are incredibly callous.
'It's shocking that people will have to wait three months for surgery because of this. People get extremely wound up and upset about operations which, in some cases, are potentially high risk.'
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients' Association, said the protest would impact on 'quality of life', adding: 'This industrial action will have implications long after doctors go back to work.'
And Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, said: 'We genuinely feel for and share the distress of the thousands of patients that have been affected. This action is not fair on them.'
Patient Tony Cooper, from Somerset, was meant to be having spinal surgery yesterday at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. He was told the day beforehand that it was cancelled.
'I didn't realise how subconsciously I had prepared myself mentally for the operation,' he said. 'It's major surgery, there's a lot of risks involved.
'What's most frustrating is apparently my surgeon would have been prepared to do the surgery. However, he was unable to find an anaesthetist who wasn't a member of one of the unions to knock me out.
'So somewhere in one of the hospitals in Bristol there's a very highly paid, very clever surgeon unable to carry out his work properly because of the arrogance of the anaesthetist.'
Dr Hamish Meldrum, the head of the BMA, defended the disruption.
He said: 'Our intention has not been to maximise the impact on patients, but to communicate the scale of doctors' anger and to encourage the Government back to the table.'
He also claimed the true turnout for the action was far higher.
'The Government's figures need to be treated with extreme caution,' he said. 'Doctors have sent a strong message that a fairer approach must be found.'
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: 'We asked doctors to recognise that their quarrel was not with patients but with the Government.
'I am pleased that a significant majority of doctors have done just that and maintained services for their patients. But let us not forget that the consequence of the BMA's decision to ask doctors to go on strike has been that thousands of patients who expected to have an operation or an appointment today have been inconvenienced.
'It is extremely regrettable if any patients have suffered unnecessarily.'
The BMA was protesting over Government changes to doctors' pensions which will see them contribute more and retire later.
But John Ralfe, a pensions expert, said consultants' annual pensions of 48,000 a year were 'very generous'. A typical consultant earning 120,000 a year contributes a lower proportion from their salary than a nurse – despite earning five times more.
Business as usual at the old practice of BMA chief
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Mr Meldrum said yesterday was all about taking industrial action in a bid to protect enviable pension pots
'We are busy. We are working normally,' said a receptionist at the practice in East Yorkshire.
Nor were they alone in putting medical care before concern for feathering their own nests.
Around 6,000 – or 75 per cent – of GP surgeries across the country provided routine appointments yesterday, according to Department of Health figures.
Fears of being turned away by their GP failed to materialise for the vast majority of patients.
And with many deciding to stay away, all too aware of the well-publicised strike, waiting rooms were less crowded.
'It was wonderful. We were looked after really well,' said mother-of-one Sanjam Bajaj, 34, who brought her eight-year-old daughter Cherisse to the Temple Fortune Health Centre, in north-west London.
Bridlington Medical Centre in East Yorkshire, which remained open despite the industrial action
'Normally we have to wait between 30 and 45 minutes to be seen, but today we were straight in to see the doctor.'
Another patient there, charity worker Naomi Goldstein, 32, a mother of one, said she was given an early morning appointment 'straight away' after calling in with tonsillitis.
The clinic is headed by another BMA bigwig, Dr Laurence Buckman, the chairman of the General Practitioners Committee.
On a normal day, he would see up to 50 people, but by lunchtime yesterday he had only seen two. 'It has been incredibly quiet,' he said. 'What we are doing is seeing urgent and emergency patients, anyone who says “will you see me”, the answer is “yes”.'
In Cardiff, Dr Andrew Dearden, Treasurer of the BMA and, until the end of last year, chairman of its pensions committee, was not at his surgery.
He has not worked there on Thursdays for the past ten years due to his BMA commitments, but kept in contact with colleagues yesterday.
During morning 'open access' sessions at the practice in Roath, more than 100 patients are normally seen by four to six doctors. Yesterday it was less than a third of that.
Dr Dearden said: 'Interestingly, it appears a lot of our patients have not come in today because they know their conditions are not acute.
'Everybody has had the opportunity to come in and be assessed but we have been treating emergency and urgent patients only.'
Asked if the strike had been a damp squib, he replied: 'Today has been about taking industrial action while making sure patients are not a risk. I think that is what we have done.'
Asked if it had diminished trust in doctors, he said: 'Over the past 20 years doctors have been the most trusted profession in this country while MPs and ministers have been among the least trusted.
'So when the medical profession takes industrial action because it can't tolerate something which it says is unfair, who do you think a member of the public is going to trust'
At the practice of the BMA's GP committee deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey, Meanwood Health Centre in Leeds, patients praised the doctors for carrying on as normal.
Trevor Haslam, 67, said: 'I called earlier to see if there was any problems but they said it was business as usual.'