UK doctors take first industrial action in 37 years

LONDON, June 21 Thu Jun 21, 2012 10:09am EDT

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LONDON, June 21 (Reuters) - Doctors in Britain's state-funded health service took industrial action for the first time in 37 years on Thursday in a dispute over changes to their pensions, cancelling thousands of patients' non-urgent appointments and operations.

The medics are the latest group of public sector workers to take industrial action in recent months over government cuts to taxpayer-funded pension schemes.

Doctors would only treat urgent and emergency cases in a 24-hour protest against government plans to make them pay more towards their pensions and retire at a later age, their union, the British Medical Association (BMA) said.

One in 10 patients had their treatment, operation or appointment cancelled, although the overall impact of the action was limited, with three-quarters of family doctor surgeries operating a normal or near-normal service, the government said.

Not all doctors took part and others were providing the level of care typically available at weekends and on public holidays.

"It is not a strike in the normal sense," BMA Chairman Hamish Meldrum said. "All doctors are at their place of work, they will be seeing anybody who is urgent or who needs to be seen," he told broadcaster ITV.

Doctors say the government has reneged on a pension deal agreed in 2008 and will require them to pay higher contributions than equivalent staff elsewhere in the civil service.

Ministers say Britain cannot afford to maintain public sector pension schemes on their current terms because of the rising cost of providing benefits to retirees living longer following improvements in public healthcare.

Doctors are the among the best paid state employees and their action risked angering Britons at a time when many face wage freezes and an uncertain job future as the government cuts spending to tackle its budget deficit.

"Does their profession really expect public sympathy over the prospect that in the future some may have to settle for a cheaper BMW or a less fashionable mooring for their sailing boats?" the right-leaning Daily Mail asked in an editorial.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the doctors' action was "pointless", saying the government would implement the pension changes which were "fair and sustainable."

Medics last took industrial action in 1975, when senior hospital doctors and junior doctors refused to work extra hours in separate disputes over contract terms. (Editing by Sophie Hares)

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