THE BRITISH MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (BMA) is calling on the Government to avert a major exodus of senior hospital doctors in England, as its new survey of nearly 8,000 doctors reveals that nearly half (44 per cent) of hospital consultant respondents in England plan to leave, or take a break from working in the NHS, over the next year.

Doctors say this is because of more than a decade of pay erosion and punitive pension taxation arrangements. The situation for surgeons is more severe with half of consultant surgeon respondents (50 per cent) having indicated that they were planning to leave.

The BMA believes these findings show that unless the Government takes urgent action to address pay, pension arrangements and working conditions, the NHS could face a tidal wave of resignations from its most senior doctors.

The warning comes as 90 per cent of NHS consultant respondents also say that this year’s pay uplift of 4.5 per cent, was ‘inadequate’ or ‘completely unacceptable’. Since 2008/09 the average consultant in England has experienced a fall in real terms take-home pay of nearly 35 per cent.

Meanwhile, punitive pension tax rules continue to force senior doctors to reduce their hours or take early retirement, constraining clinical activity. The number of doctors taking early retirement has more than tripled over the last 13 years and the average retirement age has already fallen to 59.

The NHS is already under extreme strain as 6.84 million people in England wait for planned treatment such as hip replacements and cataract operations. Against this backdrop, the retention crisis affecting the NHS’s most senior doctors will not only make it impossible to clear the waiting lists, but a lack of senior doctors will in all likelihood result in waiting lists lengthening, and even greater demand on health services.

Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA consultants committee, said: “These figures make for extremely grim reading. The NHS is already at breaking point and cannot afford to lose any of its staff, never mind facing the prospect of losing nearly half of its most senior doctors.  Not only will this have a very significant adverse impact on patient care, this loss of doctors will simply result in increased pressure on those staff who remain in the workforce, further increasing the risk of burnout.

“After years of demoralising real terms pay cuts and chronic staffing shortages, the NHS and its staff are on their knees. The government must urgently demonstrate that it values the medical workforce by taking steps to restore doctors’ pay. This must include reforming the pay review body which, rather than being the independent body it was set up to be, is constrained by government spending limits and direction via remit letters.

“The Government must also urgently address the pension tax trap that is forcing doctors to reduce their hours and take early retirement to avoid being unfairly taxed on their pensions. Despite the Prime Minister’s promises on the campaign trail to sort out doctors’ pensions, the Government has failed to implement the changes that are needed. The BMA has provided the Government with the solutions – it needs to urgently amend the Finance Act to address issues with inflation and negative pension growth, and in the long-term implement a tax unregistered scheme – just as it did to solve recruitment and retention problems in the judiciary. This would provide certainty to senior doctors that they can go on working for as long as they want caring for patients, in an unrestricted way, without the worry and complexity around pension taxation. It is, most importantly, a fundamentally fair solution which would ensure that the correct amount of tax is paid on pension growth.

“The goodwill of staff upon which the NHS depends has all but dried up. Without immediate action, the NHS is in danger of complete collapse. Our hospitals are full with patients left in corridors for hours and sometimes even days. Ambulances are frequently unable to attend to emergencies in the community as they are stuck waiting to offload patients to emergency departments that are unable to take them. Patients are waiting months and even years to access the treatment that they need with many more suffering in silence that haven’t yet made it onto a waiting list. This is not the NHS that our patients deserve or that our staff signed up to work in. The NHS is at breaking point and unless the Government acts it will collapse completely.  We urge the Government to come to the table and talk to consultants about the changes that are needed before it is too late to stop the drain of doctors from the NHS.”

* Source: British Medical Association