SAS contract negotiations and a pandemic: how we’ve navigated 2020

by Lawrence Atkins

Discussions over the branch of practice's terms and conditions have continued, here's how

Location: UK
Published: Friday 6 November 2020
telemedicine, GPs, covid-19

Despite everything that has happened this year, the staff, associate specialist and specialty doctors contract negotiations have continued – though with more Teams meetings than we might have first imagined! For this blog I spoke to the rest of the negotiating team about how they’ve navigated such complex discussions from their homes and offices.

Following an extensive survey of members, and a great deal of planning, preparation and approval from the BMA SAS committee, we entered negotiations with NHS Employers formally at the start of 2020. We know from our engagement with members that their priority is recognition and reward for their contributions, and ensuring opportunities to develop into respected senior members of staff.

Running meetings throughout this year has brought its own unique challenges.

Amit Kochhar, co-chair of SASC UK and the negotiating team’s spokesperson says: ‘Managing the competing demands of the COVID-19 response and the negotiations has certainly been testing! I have found myself emerging from long periods on-call to a mountain of planning and paperwork for negotiation meetings. Balancing those clinical commitments with long days in detailed discussions has been difficult but rewarding.’

Everyone has had to adapt to the sudden switch to virtual meetings, but this has posed particular problems for the negotiating team’s observers, who are responsible for carefully listening to and – as the name suggests – observing the management side’s responses. ‘I have spent a lot of time peering at webcams trying to work out whether the reason someone from management side is frowning is because they have not liked our position or because they’re reading a difficult work email,’ says Ujjwala Mohite, a histopathologist and team observer.

Because of these additional challenges, it has been more important than ever to keep on top of all of the detail that negotiating contracts requires. ‘We work from very lengthy planning documents, keeping track of all the issues that need to be discussed and agreed,’ explains Rajesh Kumar, co-chair of SASC UK and one of the group’s technical experts. ‘This requires careful attention, as we work out how the various issues are related and build an overall package that is attractive to our members.’

Ram Kumar, an emergency care doctor who represents Wales in the negotiations, agrees. ‘At the start of the process, the spreadsheet was alarmingly red because of all the issues still to be discussed. Now that we are in the later stages, there is a lot more in reassuring green!’

As you would expect, the most difficult conversations are often about money. Radhakrishna Shanbhag is one of the team’s technical experts and, along with BMA research analysts, has been closely involved in the complex modelling work required. ‘Like all negotiations we are going through a challenging phase to agree a contract that could be welcomed by SAS doctors and employers alike,’ he says.

However, in negotiations, things don’t always go as planned – meaning it’s essential for the team to return to its reference group and the wider committees to report back and get a further steer. Siobhan Quinn, who works as an emergency medicine doctor in Belfast and represents Northern Ireland in the negotiations, notes: ‘The SAS workforce across the nations is a broad church and it requires a lot of work and careful consideration to make sure we’re representing everyone’s interests effectively.’

As the negotiations approach the finish line, with a final offer to be made by the end of December, there is still a great deal of work to be done, including additional discussions to make the contracts suitable for Wales and Northern Ireland. As soon as that offer is signed off, we will be conducting a series of virtual ‘roadshows’ in January and February, where we explain the detail of what has been negotiated and what it might mean for you.

We will then be opening a referendum of all BMA SAS members so that you can have your say on the contracts.

Find out more and stay updated

Lawrence Atkins is a specialty doctor in psychiatry and leader of the contract negotiating team