Fresh efforts are being made to sort out long-standing pension issues which can prevent NHS staff working extra shifts to help tackle the elective backlog, NHS England’s chief executive has said.
Amanda Pritchard told the Nuffield Trust’s virtual annual conference 2022 that NHSE leaders were actively “working with government” on making pension arrangements more attractive in a bid to support the NHS workforce.
The think tank’s chief executive Nigel Edwards asked the NHSE chief whether in the wake of the pandemic, with many staff burnt out or suffering related trauma, the “appetite” existed to carry out the substantial number of extra shifts needed to reduce the waiting list.
Ms Pritchard said: “My sense is there is still a huge amount of goodwill and energy out there [among frontline staff and the royal colleges] but practically being able to sort out things like pensions arrangements really matters, because that’s the kind of thing where people will say ‘look, we want to do the work, but just help us find a way [to do that]’.”
She added: “We’re looking at pensions as one of those things, and we’re working with government [on a solution for that].”
It appears to be the first time since the start of the pandemic that a senior NHSE figure has highlighted pensions problems as a barrier to workforce supply, and indicated that government action is needed to develop a fresh solution.
Although Ms Pritchard did not specify precisely what parts of the pensions regime were being looked into, there are a number of well-documented, long-standing issues.
The annual allowance taper, which restricts the amount of pension tax relief available each year to higher earners, has previously been blamed for discouraging clinicians to take on extra shifts.
In the March 2020 Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak raised the earnings threshold for the taper from £110,000 to £200,000. At the time, he said this would remove 98 per cent of consultants and 96 per cent of GPs from the taper.
The government had launched a consultation on making NHS pensions more flexible in autumn 2019. However, in February 2021 it revealed it was not going ahead with the proposals as it felt the changes made in the March 2020 Budget had resolved the issue of clinicians being discouraged to take extra shifts.
Meanwhile, the lifetime allowance, which relates to the total amount people can save into their pension before attracting tax, was frozen for five years in the March 2021 Budget. Shortly after the announcement, pensions experts warned it may cause NHS staff to rethink the hours they worked.
Medical groups in particular have continued to cite pensions tax issues as a barrier to extra working and to staff retention.
NHSE remains silent on Russian gas issue
Ms Pritchard was less forthcoming on the issue of trusts buying gas from Russian companies.
Earlier this week, analysis by HSJ found at least 11 trusts have paid just over £4m to a Russian government-owned energy supplier in the current financial year, while 17 paid the company £17m the year before.
However, when asked if the NHS should still be buying Russian gas, Ms Pritchard declined to give a direct answer and instead said there was some “supply chain resilience” work being carried out in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Neither NHSE nor the Department of Health and Social Care have provided a comment on the issue.