Johnson promises to tackle pensions crisis

Author: Mark Gould

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Doctors have welcomed government promises to address the pensions crisis but they say that any action must include a drastic overhaul of tax rules which the British Medical Association (BMA) says are causing "grave threat" to patients.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that later this week the health secretary Matt Hancock will set out further changes to the NHS pension scheme to support senior doctors and GPs taking on extra shifts.

The BMA comments came in response to an article in the Sunday Times by prime minister Boris Johnson, who writes: “It cannot be right, for instance, that people are waiting so long to see their GP; and it cannot be right that so many GPs and consultants are leaving the service, or cutting their hours, for fear of whopping tax bills. It is clear that something has gone badly wrong in the taxation of doctors’ pensions. So this government is listening. We are fixing it. We are changing the rules so that doctors no longer face a perverse incentive to reduce hours.”

However, the newspaper also reports that “the NHS pension scheme will be remodelled so that senior doctors can be more flexible about their pension saving”, rather than tax rules changed.

A major survey by the BMA last week revealed that 42 per cent of GPs and 30 per cent of consultants had already reduced their working hours over actual or potential pension charges. Of those who hadn’t reduced their hours already, 34 per cent of GPs and 40 per cent of consultants said they were planning to for the same reason.

BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that If Mr Johnson is serious about improving care and tackling waiting times "he must give patients reassurance that senior hospital doctors and GPs will be able to continue to provide care, and not be forced out by absurd taxes on their pensions that mean all too often they are paying to go to work".

“The BMA has led the campaign on this issue, and while it is good that the prime minister appears to be beginning to recognise the scale of the problem, flexibility alone is not the solution –  especially without employers’ full pension contributions being recycled back into doctors’ salaries.

“While flexibilities may help in the short-term, what is needed is a drastic overhaul of pension tax regulations, including the damaging annual allowance and tapered annual allowance, to stop this absurd situation and avert this grave threat to our NHS workforce and patients – and we will continue to push the government for this crucial change.”

The BMA, which has led the campaigning on the issue, says it is positive that the government is beginning to recognise the problem, but that the real solution must be in overhauling the damaging tax legislation – including the annual allowance and tapered annual allowance – that leaves senior doctors facing significant and unexpected tax bills.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "General practice is currently facing intense workforce pressures and current pensions arrangements are exacerbating these, so it is good to see the government taking this issue seriously.

"If implemented correctly, the changes announced today are welcome - but many experienced GPs are already, and quite understandably, reducing the number of patient-facing sessions they work and are unable to take on additional teaching duties because of how this will adversely affect their pensions and taxation situation, so it is vital that changes are applied swiftly.

"At a time when GPs and our teams are really struggling with escalating workload, and with inadequate numbers of staff to safely undertake it – and our patients are waiting longer for an appointment as a result – we need to be doing everything we can to keep hard working, experienced GPs in the profession, and hopefully today's announcement is a step towards that."

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