Guidance for hospital doctors not involved in industrial action by other unions in Northern Ireland

This guidance relates to doctors in Northern Ireland only.


Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Tuesday 16 January 2024
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Industrial action in Northern Ireland

A day of industrial action will take place on Thursday 18 January 2024 across Northern Ireland.

BMA members

BMA members have not been balloted and therefore should not participate in industrial action.

BMA members are advised to continue their normal duties and responsibilities, mindful that they may well need to adjust those responsibilities to the exceptional circumstances (see below for more on this).

Members of health and social care unions have a legal right to take part in lawful industrial action.

How do I plan for the day of industrial action?

All trusts will make their own contingency plans and business continuity plans which will be communicated to staff.

Discussions should take place in advance of the days of industrial action, both within your team and with trust management. Arrangements to cover emergency and urgent activity should be made first.

Can I be asked to undertake the duties of absent colleagues?

While you are under no obligation to prolong your working day to undertake work that has not been performed by colleagues taking industrial action, you still have a duty of fidelity and good faith to your employer and will need to provide reasonable cooperation during your working day. Doctors also have a responsibility for continuity and coordination of care, and for the safe transfer of patients between different teams. As always, you must ensure that you meet the professional obligations set out in the GMC’s Good Medical Practice.

There is no absolute requirement to provide cover but your employer may ask you to perform duties to cover for a colleague who is taking industrial action. Unreasonable refusal to do so could result in your employer taking disciplinary action.

It is hard to say in advance what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ request or an unreasonable refusal to cooperate with such a request. Clinical safety, however, should be a key factor. For example, it would not be reasonable for an employer to ask you to perform all the duties of a colleague as well as your own for the whole day, to undertake work that you are not qualified or experienced enough to undertake (such as work in a completely different speciality) or to do anything else that may result in your being too fatigued, unequipped or overburdened to be working safely. Nor would it be likely to be considered reasonable for you to be asked to undertake non-clinical work that would distract you from your usual clinical activities. If you feel that you have been asked to do any of these things, you should raise this with the medical director.

If a patient is at risk, any refusal to cooperate in assisting that patient is likely to be considered unreasonable and you will be more vulnerable than if the request were to undertake work that was not clinically urgent or was not clinical in nature at all.

You must be confident, nevertheless, that the responsibilities you have taken on are within your competencies. With regard to what happens when the episode of industrial action finishes, please remember the importance of continuity of care and communication with colleagues, and the following guidance from the GMC’s Good Medical Practice:

You must contribute to the safe transfer of patients between healthcare providers and between health and social care providers. This means you must:

  • share all relevant information with colleagues involved in your patients’ care within and outside the team, including when you hand over care as you go off duty, and when you delegate care or refer patients to other health or social care providers [1][2]
  • check, where practical, that a named clinician or team has taken over responsibility when your role in providing a patient’s care has ended. This may be particularly important for patients with impaired capacity or who are vulnerable for other reasons.

Should I cancel my own clinical work – such as an outpatient clinic?

The responsibility for ensuring safe services rests with your employer. You and your colleagues may advise your employer which services can be safely run on a day of industrial action, and which should be reduced or cancelled. You can also advise on which staff may need to be redeployed. But the responsibility for reducing or cancelling services and for redeploying staff is your employer’s, not yours.

What should I do if I am asked to cancel pre-booked leave?

You should seek the advice of your LNC who will have access to BMA advice and support. Alternatively, you can get in touch with BMA advisers via [email protected] 

How can I show my support for colleagues?

You can show moral support and not obstruct or discourage colleagues in their legitimate right to take industrial action, but without in any way compromising your own position as a professional and an employee not directly affected by the dispute.