Wrong-headed pensions move threatens to blow further hole in the senior doctor workforce in Scotland

Last week BMA Scotland made absolutely plain our fears around the long-term retention of senior doctors in our NHS. You can read our full report here.

We have rising consultant vacancy rates – which could be greater than 15% and are seriously under-estimated by official figures.

Workforce data shows far too many of our senior doctors are leaving the workforce before they reach 60 – let alone the increased retirement age of 67 or 68.

This is only set to get worse, with nearly half of the consultants who responded to a survey conducted by BMA Scotland considering retiring in the next five years. Of those, more than half report that is earlier than their normal pension age.

Our leaders across Government and the NHS simply must not turn a blind eye to this and the bland soundbites used in response so far just don’t cut it. Continuing like everything is fine will seriously threaten the ability of our NHS to deliver safe and effective care. Solid action and a clear plan is urgently needed.

What is absolutely not needed are financial disincentives that will push more doctors out of the NHS, taking with them years of experience built up on the frontline of providing care.

Yet in a wrong-headed and counter-productive move, that is exactly what the Chancellor provided in his Budget yesterday by freezing the pension lifetime allowance.

This may sound a technicality, but the reality is that it will mean more senior doctors in all parts of the profession risking running up substantial tax bills for the work they do.

This move was mooted before the Budget – and the BMA warned then this would have a negative impact on the NHS and the workforce available to it. Indeed, we surveyed members ahead of the budget on this issue and the findings are stark.

In Scotland, more than 1,000 doctors responded:

  • A hugely worrying two thirds of those said freezing the lifetime allowance would make them more likely to leave the health service.
  • Just over 60 per cent said the move would make them more likely to work less hours in order to avoid potential bills, while 37% said it would make them likely to give up additional roles or responsibilities.

These figures show that freezing the lifetime allowance threatens to blow another substantial hole in a workforce that is already stretched to the very limit across both secondary and primary care. It is clear it will mean doctors will either cut hours or leave entirely as a result, when the financial reality hits home and levels of care will inevitably suffer.

In Scotland we just cannot afford for this to happen. The decision must be reversed, or a solution found to mitigate its impact for doctors. We need to remember that the Scottish Government decided not to renew the Recycling Employers Contributions scheme, which BMA Scotland fought so hard for. Even more frustratingly they also decided not to offer the one-off compensation scheme that ran in England & Wales for 2019/20 AA bills. These factors will only make the position worse.

The BMA are raising this on a UK level following the Budget – and we will of course be pushing the Scottish Government again as we strongly believe they could be doing far more within the devolved context to address these issues.

We were clear in our consultant retention paper that resolving pensions issues for good was crucial to making sure we keep the senior doctors we need working within our NHS. The Chancellor’s announcement yesterday makes finding that resolution even more urgent – for the good of our NHS and the people it cares for every single day.

Dr Graeme Eunson, Chair, BMA Scotland Consultant Committee

The BMA are currently running pensions seminars for doctors covering issues with the NHS pension scheme – with the next due to take place on Saturday and you can find out more, and sign up here.

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