Weekend leak of hospital trusts’ joint talks on rising wage bill stokes fears of NHS pay cuts

Written by Tony Millett on .

The Sunday Times’ main headline (July 14) caught the eye of many of those working for the NHS: “Thousands of doctors face sack”.  A leaked document had revealed plans by a consortium of the south west’s hospital trusts to save money on their growing wage bills.

This report listed a number of proposals that had been circulated including a five per cent pay cut; no overtime for night shifts, weekends and bank holidays; reduced holiday leave; longer shifts; and “slashing sick pay rates”.

Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (GWH) is one of sixteen leading hospitals to have begun talks exploring different ways of paying and rewarding staff that will help meet the serious financial and operational challenges facing the NHS this year and beyond. Other local hospitals in the consortium are Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal United Bath NHS Trust.

The Sunday Times' report and other media coverage was based on a document written in January 2012 and the first meeting of the consortium’s steering group took place at the end of June.  No decisions are expected until the end of the year and any decision taken by the consortium as a whole will have to be agreed by each hospital’s board.

Oonagh Fitzgerald, GWH’s Director of Workforce and Education, told Marlborough News Online: “This year in our Trust we have to save sixteen million pounds and more money in future years.  Approximately seventy per cent of our income is spent on staff pay and we have to look at this, and every other opportunity that exists to make our income go further for our patients.”

Despite the freeze on inflation related pay rises ordered by the coalition government, GWH’s pay bill is going up this year by £1.7 million – mainly in agreed incremental pay rises and consequent pension contributions.

Ms Fitzgerald stressed that no decisions on any specific measures have been taken: “We’re discussing this issue on a regular basis with our Employee Partnership Forum whose role it is to represent the views of staff and we’ll be keeping them closely informed of this work as it develops.”

The UNISON trade union has dubbed the consortium a “cartel”.  Their head of health, Christina McAnea, said: "The setting up of this pay cartel is a crude attempt to drive down wages, which in turn will damage the quality of patient care in all sixteen trusts…  The cartel will lead to shortages of key staff who will vote with their feet and move to hospitals where the pay is better and patients will be the ones who suffer.”

Coincidentally, another Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, carried a related NHS story: “NHS pays £1,600 a day for nurses as agency use soars”.  The £1,600 a day figure turns out to be an “up to” figure for “specialist nurses.”

Agency nurses, who do not get the benefits of employed staff, are paid much more than NHS nurses.  General nurses from the agencies were costing “up to £1,400 a day, compared with average pay of £188 for those on health service contracts” – whether that £188 was take home pay or full employment costs was not made clear.

The comparisons made in the article have been challenged.  As have the Royal College of Nursing’s figures for the loss of nursing posts.  Confusingly, the College claims 26,000 frontline posts were lost during the coalition’s first year, while ministers claim the figure is just 450 posts lost since 2009.

Figures obtained by the Sunday Telegraph from thirty-nine hospital trusts (about a quarter of all hospitals in England) show they filled 21,000 shifts during March 2012 with agency staff – a third more than during the previous March.   But even these figures may be a huge under-estimate of the number non-staff nurses used. These hospitals use many staff from the NHS ‘staff bank’ (NHS Professionals) before they turn to agency staff to fill nursing shifts.

Reading the two Sunday newspaper reports side by side underlines the financial difficulties facing the NHS.