The government’s solution to the NHS pensions crisis is a “sticking plaster” and stops far short of fundamental tax reforms that are needed, said the doctors’ trade union.
The British Medical Association, the doctors’ professional association, described a government consultation on pension flexibilities — which proposed allowing senior staff and employers to reduce the amount they were paying into pension pots to avoid breaching tax-free savings limits — as a temporary fix. It added that the proposals would not solve a problem that threatens to worsen workforce shortages over the busy winter period.
The pension changes, introduced in 2016, restricted the amount of tax relief top earners could claim on retirement savings, and have left some senior medical practitioners facing marginal tax rates of more than 100 per cent due to the “taper” — the rate at which relief is withdrawn. Many have reduced their hours or even left the profession as a result.
“Only by scrapping the damaging annual and tapered annual allowance will the government stem the flow of doctors refusing additional work or considering leaving the profession over the issue. This lies with the Treasury,” said Paul Youngs, who chairs the BMA pensions committee.
The association said it could only support the flexibilities the government had put forward if the employer’s reduced contribution was made up for with an increase in salary. Without this compulsory recycling, any flexibilities would represent a real-terms pay cut, it said.
Dr Youngs urged the government to “get a grip on this issue immediately. As we approach Brexit day and the onset of winter — themselves presenting their own threats to the NHS and its patients — we cannot afford to be without the skills and expertise of our most experienced doctors,” he said.
The latest evidence of the impact of the pensions issue on patient care has emerged from NHS trust board notes covering September and October, which showed that of the 61 hospitals examined, 30 were blaming longer waiting times in cancer diagnosis, ophthalmology and radiology on the pensions shake-up, as consultants and senior staff turned down extra shifts or reduced their hours to avoid additional charges.
In June executives at a West Midlands NHS Trust, which had seen just 4 per cent of suspected cancer patients within its target timeframe, pinned its poor performance on the pensions issue. The two-week target requires 93 per cent of patients with suspected cancer to be seen by a specialist within two weeks of referral by their GP.
Separately a BMA survey published in August found that thousands of GPs and hospital consultants had reduced their working hours, and thousands more were planning to cut back to avoid additional tax charges.