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Doctors bear burden of Government’s financial failure

Budget pay freeze and scrapping grants will put low-income students off studying medicine

Louise Prime

Thursday, 09 July 2015

Doctors and colleagues in the NHS should not have to continue to bear the burden of the government’s failure to put NHS finances on a sustainable footing, doctors’ leaders have insisted after George Osborne announced an effective ‘pay freeze’. They warned that students from low-income families will be more disincentivised than ever from studying medicine, as student grants are being scrapped completely in favour of loans. And they criticised the government’s ‘contradictory’ decision to cut £200m from the public health budget at a time when it claims to be investing in preventive health to reduce unnecessary demand on the NHS.

In his 2015 budget speech, yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer pledged an extra £8bn for the NHS by 2020-21 – but said that the 1% limit on public sector pay rises will continue for next four years. Many were quick to point out that this is, in effect, a pay freeze once inflation is taken into account, and insisted that doctors should not have to suffer the consequences of the government’s failure to solve the NHS’s financial difficulties. Chair of BMA Council Dr Mark Porter pointed out that the government had failed to explain how it would achieve the extra £22bn in efficiency savings needed to plug the gap in NHS finances. He said: “So far the majority of savings have been found through cutting tariffs paid to hospitals and cutting staff pay. The health secretary himself has admitted that continued pay restraint is unsustainable and the Chancellor’s cynical disregard for NHS staff is shown by this announcement of a pay freeze for another four years at a time when he knows that inflation will rise above that.

“Doctors have been a driving force behind protecting patient care in the face of tighter budgets and rising demand. The continual chipping away at staff pay has left doctors feeling demoralised and devalued. It is simply wrong to expect hard working NHS staff to continue to bear the burden for the government’s failure to put NHS finances on a sustainable footing.”

Mr Osborne also announced that he is scrapping university maintenance grants and replacing them with loans, which doctors warned could further reduce diversity in a profession already dominated by privately and selectively educated students. Dr Porter said: “Increases in tuition fees and the higher cost of living have made medicine a much less attractive option for many students. The Chancellor’s decision … burdening students from low-income backgrounds with further debt, may be a further disincentive to pursuing a career in medicine.“It is crucial that students who want to study medicine are able to do so irrespective of their background.”

The BMA was highly critical of the Chancellor’s revelation that he is cutting £200m from the public health budget. Dr Porter commented: “The decision contradicts the government’s claim to support more investment in preventive health and is at odds with the prime minister's specific desire to ‘get rid of unnecessary demand for the NHS by investing in public health’ ... and will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in society who suffer from the inequalities that public health medicine is there to address.”

Others, however, welcomed the promise of extra investment in the NHS as well as the continuation of public sector pay restraint. Daniel Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “Patients and employers want to see improved and better seven-day services, and what we urgently need to consider is the workforce and pay and contract reform required to support this, especially for medical staff.”

He went on: “Our discussions [with trade unions] will now need to be set against the context of today’s announcement from the Government of continued public sector pay restraint and we recognise that these discussions are now likely to be more difficult.”

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