BMA due to ballot doctors on industrial action in May (Reuters/Toby Melville)

The British Medical Association (BMA) is threatening industrial action over the government's planned changes to NHS pensions.

The BMA Council is preparing plans to ballot the association's 130,000 members on holding its first strike action since 1975, unless the Department of Health (DoH) reconsiders proposed hikes in pension contributions.

If they decide to go ahead with industrial action in May, doctors taking part will provide only urgent and emergency care for a 24-hour period.

Although the BMA insists patient safety would be a priority, health minister Simon Burns has branded any action "unacceptable", claiming it would "put patients at risk".

Any action would cap weeks of talks between the DoH and the BMA over the pension reforms that will see contributions increase, so that most GPs pay around 13.5 percent by 2014/15.

The BMA walked away from proposals put forward by the DoH, which offered no concessions on contributions or changes to retirement age, meaning many doctors may have to work until they are 68.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of BMA Council, said members of the profession were taking the step "very reluctantly" and claimed the government will not engage with them to take the argument forward.

"NHS staff agreed to major changes to their pensions only four years ago," he said. "As a result, the scheme is delivering £2bn to the Treasury each year and staff have taken on sole responsibility for covering increases in costs due to improvements in longevity in the future.

"Now the government wants to tear up a deal reached through genuine negotiation and impose these further, unnecessary changes.

"There is still time for the government to rethink its plans, but if it does not, we have made a firm commitment that patient safety will be the overriding priority."

According to Meldrum, the BMA would ensure that any patients requiring urgent or emergency care on the day of action would be treated.

He said: "All doctors due to be in work would still be in their usual workplaces. We would aim to work with managers and other NHS staff to try to ensure as much notice and information about what was happening on the day as possible."

Burns claimed there was "no justification" for industrial action.

He said: "The first responsibility of all NHS staff must be to help patients. Industrial action is completely unacceptable because it would put patients at risk.

"Our proposals mean doctors will continue to receive pensions that are among the highest in the public or private sectors. A doctor joining the new scheme after 2015 could expect a pension of around £68,000 a year at state retirement age.

"Pension reform is necessary because people are living longer, healthier lives. Our proposals are a fair deal for staff and taxpayers and make public service pensions affordable and sustainable.

"It is fair that higher earners pay greater contributions relative to those on lower and middle incomes. Lower earner members should not be footing the bill. That is why we have protected those on lower salaries," he added.

The BMA and the coalition have not seen eye to eye on plans for the NHS, with the two clashing over the controversial Health and Social Care Bill, which received royal assent in March.

If it goes ahead, the ballot will open on 14 May and close on 29 May.