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Andrew Lansley urges doctors not to take part in industrial action

Andrew Lansley has pleaded with doctors and medics not to take industrial action as protests began over changes to their pensions that they regard both as unfair and unnecessary.

The action was "pointless" and would achieve nothing, the health secretary said. Speaking on ITV's Daybreak, Lansley accused the British Medical Association (BMA) of wanting a pension deal that would decrease those of lower-paid NHS staff. "We needed something that was fairer for other NHS staff as well. The contributions do need to be properly progressive and they do need to reflect the highest paid paying a greater proportion into their pensions overall."

Thousands of routine appointments and non-urgent operations will be cancelled as doctors take industrial action for the first time in 37 years in protest over the government's pension reforms.

As many doctors turned up at their hospital or surgery as normal – and emergencies and urgent cases will be dealt with as normal – as NHS leaders stressed they did not want patients dragged into the dispute.

The BMA chairman of council, Dr Hamish Meldrum, said the doctors' fight was not with patients but with the government. The BMA wanted to re-open negotiations with the government to avoid a repeat of the dispute, he added.

He told ITV's Daybreak: "I hope [the action] is not pointless and futile because we are very anxious to seek a resolution to this dispute and if this helps to highlight the problem and to get to that resolution then I hope it will have some point to it. Nobody is happy about taking any sort of action that impacts adversely on patients."

The government has claimed that up to 30,000 operations could be cancelled and 1.25m GP appointments postponed as a result of the strike, which started at midnight. The figures cannot be verified as the Department of Health has asked NHS trusts not to reveal details to the media.

The action has been preceded by a war of words between doctors' leaders and ministers, with Lansley suggesting doctors receive more favourable pensions at the expense of lower paid staff in the NHS.

Current arrangements meant that often the highest paid received twice as much back in pension benefits than lower-paid staff, he said. "I'm afraid we are in a position where the BMA are out on their own and what they seem to be aiming for is to try and change things back so they get more and nurses and porters and others in the NHS get less."

He hoped doctors would not go on strike, he added. "I think if they have an argument and they're angry, they're angry with the government and that's our job to represent the taxpayer and the public interest, and maybe we will have that argument. But I can't see why anybody thinks there is any benefit in penalising patients. It won't serve any purpose whatsoever."

Not all doctors are taking part in the action. About a third do not belong to the BMA, which has called the action. And when the BMA balloted its members last month, 21% of GPs and 15.7% of hospital consultants said they were not prepared to participate.

Given the turnouts were 53.1% and 56% respectively, that suggests many doctors are unlikely to join in. But services in both hospitals and GP surgeries in many areas will be affected.

Even doctors taking part in the action will continue to deal with urgent and emergency cases, so it should be business as usual in A&E departments, maternity units, for renal (kidney) and cancer patients, and anyone needing an urgent diagnostic test or end-of-life care.

However, they will not undertake routine duties, and some GP surgeries have postponed a number of booked routine appointments, including non-urgent consultations and monitoring of long-term conditions.

GPs will deal with urgent prescription requests but not repeat prescription requests, and will still review test results and refer any abnormal ones to hospital.

The strike is also why an estimated 80% of UK hospitals – a BMA figure based on talking to local NHS managers about the action's likely impact – have cancelled at least some planned operations and some outpatient appointments.

The BMA said it was not a strike in the "normal" sense. "The nature of the work that doctors do, it is very difficult to do anything that won't have some impact on patients," he said. "We negotiated a deal on pensions four years ago that meant that doctors would work longer, they would pay more and that they would take the risk of any future increase or impact of people living longer on the pension scheme and the government has walked away from that deal."

Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said patients awaiting an operation to remove a cataract or benign lump, or replace a worn-out hip or knee, were among those whose care had been postponed, but only in some places. "I don't have any hard numbers [of patients affected] but in some places it will be very disruptive and in other places it will be very minimal."

The amount of planned care postponed varies from one hospital to another. Health Service Journal reports that Wythenshawe hospital in Manchester, for example, is cancelling no operations but has rescheduled 15 outpatient appointments. University Hospital of North Staffordshire expects to cancel just three non-urgent operations and eight non-urgent outpatient appointments. Peterborough and Stamford Foundation Trust had postponed two operations and 53 outpatient appointments but thought that number might rise.

In Yorkshire, NHS Airedale, Bradford and Leeds says that, of its 81 GP surgeries, just 12 will see all GPs taking part in the action, with 20 other surgeries seeing some GPs take part, and the other 49 surgeries totally uninvolved. A snapshot survey by Pulse magazine on Tuesday suggested that as few as 22% of GP surgeries intended to join the action.

This article was taken from guardian.co.uk – http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jun/21/andrew-lansley-doctors-industrial-action