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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 18:47 GMT
Doctors ready for a fight
GP consultation
GPs are in increasingly short supply

Are the BMA upping the ante as negotiations over the new contract for family doctors reach their final stage?

Talks with the government are due to be concluded on February 21.

So with less than a month to go the nation's health journalists are summoned to BMA headquarters to be told the GP service faces 'meltdown'.

Dr John Chisholm, the chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee knows how inflammatory that kind of language can be. But he did not stop there.
The main doctors' union faces a test of their credibility in the coming weeks

The situation is 'dire', provision is 'uneven', it is 'impossible' to recruit, creating 'no go areas' where you can't find a GP for love nor money, he told us.

The problem is not just the shortage of GP's.

The shortage of locums - doctors employed as freelancers to fill in where necessary - means the best of them can virtually name their price.

Double whammy

So under the current arrangements doctors who lose out financially when a GP post is vacant, suffer a double whammy, if they try to arrange cover.

If not of course, then they have to take on the extra patients (on average the BMA tells us 1800 for each vacant post) adding to the pressure on them.

So that lowers morale, unhappy doctors look for other jobs, which means more vacant posts etc.

All pretty miserable, both for those working in surgeries and the poor patients who just want to see a doctor.

So was it a coincidence, then that this our attention was being drawn to this problem in the dying days of the GP contract negotiations, Dr Chisholm was asked?

Absolutely not he told us. But I was not the only journalist sitting there who was not convinced.

It is fair to say I think that the main doctors' union faces a test of their credibility in the coming weeks.

Dr Chisholm at his press conference today was trumpeting the new contract as the only answer to the vacancies 'meltdown'

The rejection of the consultants' contract by a large part of the membership has left a mess.

It is being rushed in in Scotland; in England the government plans to try to introduce it piecemeal hospital by hospital.

Ministers were angry that in their eyes the BMA failed to 'sell' the deal to their membership that their own negotiators had spent months and months thrashing out. They have refused to reopen negotiations.

Different approach

With the GP contract, it will be different, doctors' leaders promise, and privately they accept that lessons have been learnt from the difficulties their colleagues on the consultants' committee got themselves into.

For a start they say while they bridle at suggestions they will be involved in 'selling' the contract to members, their road shows where they 'explain' it will be staffed by people who really know what they are talking about.

Road shows set up to explain the consultants' deal often got bogged down in the detail they say, made worse because some of those on the platform had not been involved in the negotiations.

Then there is the ballot. GPs' votes will be counted on a UK wide basis to avoid the situation the consultants leaders faced where different parts of the country voted different ways.

The GPs' leaders accept they face the same risk as the consultants' that some of their members will decide to reject the contract as a means of giving the government a bloody nose.

What is possible they say though, is that the government's determination to try to steam roller the consultant contract through will persuade some of those members of 'the awkward squad' that that might end up hurting them in the pocket.

To that end Dr Chisholm at his press conference today was trumpeting the new contract as the only answer to the vacancies 'meltdown'.

Look for more of these 'reasons to vote yes' in the coming weeks.

For behind the scenes he and many of his colleagues must be anxious that between them the BMA and the government cannot afford to mess this one up, like they did the last one.

See also:

28 Jan 03 | Health
19 Nov 02 | Health
03 Oct 02 | Health
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