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Calls for fresh talks as consultants in England reject Government pay offer

The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling on the Government to discuss making improvements to its latest pay offer after consultants narrowly voted against it.

BMA consultant members in England voted 51.1% against the offer in a referendum held from 14 December to 23 January.

Some 23,544 consultants cast their vote – a turnout of 64.8% – of whom 12,037 voted against and 11,507 (48.9%) for the offer.

Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, said: ‘The vote has shown that consultants do not feel the current offer goes far enough to end the current dispute and offer a long-term solution to the recruitment and retention crisis for senior doctors.

‘It backs up conversations we’ve had with colleagues in recent weeks, who felt the changes were insufficient and did not give them confidence that pay erosion would be addressed over the coming years.

‘In addition, they were concerned about the fairness of the offer and how it impacted different groups of doctors. There were also clear concerns about changes to professional development time, and time dedicated to teaching and research.’

With such a slim margin, the BMA has announced it will not immediately resume strike action, instead giving the Government time to improve the offer.

Consultants in England have a mandate to take industrial action until 18 June 2024.

Dr Sharma said: ‘In the coming days we will be further engaging with consultants, and seeking talks with Government to explore whether the concerns expressed by our members during the referendum process can be addressed.’

Responding to the consultants’ vote, health secretary Victoria Atkins said: ‘I hugely value the work of NHS consultants and I am disappointed that after weeks of constructive negotiations the BMA has, by the narrowest of margins, rejected this fair and reasonable offer.

‘I want to build on our progress on waiting lists and for us all to be able to focus our efforts on offering patients the highest quality care. The Government is therefore carefully considering next steps.’

Earlier in January, some 58% of consultant members of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) voted against the pay offer.

HCSA president Dr Naru Narayanan also called on the Government to return to the negotiating table after the offer was rejected ‘on a number of points’, including further erosion of Supporting Professional Activities (SPA) time and the overall level of investment and unevenness of the award across the pay scale.

Dr Narayanan said: ‘We have listened to our members and the prospect of changes to SPA time in this offer rang clear alarm bells. They are deeply concerned that the time they need to develop their skills and impart knowledge to trainees has already been eroded beyond a sustainable level. They know first-hand the constant pressure they face from managers to reduce it still further.’

Targeting the suggested investment at specific pay points means ‘many consultants would have missed out on an uplift this year’, he said.

Dr Narayanan added: ‘The Government needs to revisit the investment it is willing to make in our most experienced doctors. This result is a wake-up call. We have observed the Prime Minister’s repeated suggestion that the senior doctors’ pay dispute had been resolved, but the result … shows there is no room for complacency given low morale and years of underinvestment in staffing.

‘We are confident that with a positive approach to further negotiations it is still possible to strike a deal which a majority of consultants will be willing to accept.’

BMA Cymru Wales’ consultants are also being balloted for strike action over the six weeks to 4 March 2024.

The rejection of the Government’s offer by BMA consultant members in England comes as the union’s junior doctors committee in England announced it is to reballot its members for another six months of industrial action.

The current mandate expires at the end of February and the new ballot will run from 7 February to 20 March 2024.

If returned with a ‘yes’ vote, the mandate for strike action in England would be extended to September 2024.

The new ballot will also include approval of Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), which encompasses any other industrial action taken in order to put pressure on the employer in a trade dispute, such as refusing to work overtime, but which does not amount to full walkouts.

In December, HCSA junior doctors in England voted by over 96% in favour of continued strike action over pay until at least June.