Staff set to miss out on ‘covid bonus’ despite government U-turn

Published on: 5 Dec 2023

Staff in some organisations providing NHS services – including in trusts’ subsidiary companies – are likely to miss out on the one-off ‘covid bonus’ paid to other health service staff, despite an apparent government agreement to fund it, HSJ has been told

The government announced last month that non-NHS organisations could apply for funding to deliver the bonus – worth at least £1,655 per person – which was agreed in the spring for directly employed NHS staff covered by Agenda for Change contracts.

However, NHS England has now published strict criteria for employers to bid to access the funding, which sector leaders said is likely to mean some are ineligible. Meanwhile, unions in several affected organisations are continuing with strike action as they still do not expect to receive the bonus.

Social enterprises providing NHS services have been campaigning to be included in the one-off payments scheme; and trusts’ subsidiary companies, charities, local authorities, and independent providers are also affected. 

The criteria for these organisations to bid for funding, published by NHSE last week, require them to demonstrate a “negative financial impact from the non-consolidated pay award presenting a risk to the continuity of services”, and for them to have less than 10 days of liquidity to cover operating costs. The staff affected must also have terms and conditions which are “dynamically linked” to AfC.

Director of the NHS Confederation’s acute network Rory Deighton said: “While we welcome the clarity from the government on who will be eligible to receive the funding, we remain concerned by the narrow space the rules provide around financial support for providers and how some organisations who have been affected by the delay in funding will miss out on the support they require to continue providing vital health and care services to their patients.”

Dan Gregory, director of national representative body Social Enterprise UK, said: “Our members are unhappy with the financial criteria outlined for the backlog bonus funding, as having campaigned all year to be treated the same as the rest of the NHS family, this is yet another sign that social enterprise providers of vital healthcare services are not getting equal recognition and reward for their hard work.” 

An HSJ investigation earlier this year found many subsidiary companies were employing new staff on terms and conditions significantly different from AfC, including no access to the NHS pension and poorer unsocial hours terms. But the NHSE criteria to access the new funding says staff terms must “mirror those set out in the current NHS terms and conditions of service handbook… and continue to be updated in line with any changes”.

NHSE – which is managing the funding on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care – has said that, after an initial round of bids, there may be a second tranche of applications with slightly less stringent financial criteria, but guidance for this has yet to be published.

Strikes

While some NHS organisations have already paid the bonus to staff not covered by the initial AfC settlement in May, others are facing strikes by groups of workers who have not received the bonus and have had no confirmation that they will be following the government announcement.

Around 300 Unite members working at 2together Support Solutions, the subsidiary company which delivers facilities services for East Kent Hospital University Foundation Trust will strike on 11, 15, and 18 December.

According to Unite, 2together has confirmed it will not pay the lump sum agreed in the AfC negotiations to staff working in estates, facilities, domestics, housekeeping, and catering departments. It says staff earn as little as £11.45 an hour and are among the lowest paid in the NHS.

East Kent is understood to be seeking funding for at least some of the subsidiary company’s staff. However, 2together took on some staff from a previous outsourced contractor – whose terms are not linked to AfC – and so do not appear to meet the eligibility criteria.

A spokesperson for East Kent Hospitals said: “We are focused on ensuring that it is business as usual for our patients and that they can access the care they expect from us every day of the week. We are very grateful to the many staff from 2gether Support Solutions who support us to ensure patient services run smoothly, and respect their right to strike.”

Around 60 Unite members employed by Mitie at three hospitals in Dudley (Russells Hall, Corbett, and Dudley Guest) are planning to strike for 17 days in December, January, and February. At Barts Health, staff who moved from an outsourced company to trust employment too late to qualify for the bonus are striking this week.

A Barts spokesperson said: “We are continuing to engage with staff and unions to find a suitable resolution to the issues raised, including those relating to the NHS lump sum payment. We understand colleagues are unhappy and are working to find a resolution as soon as possible.”

The DHSC – which drew up the criteria – has been asked to comment.