The number of NHS workers in England and Wales claiming retirement benefits has reached a record monthly high, according to data that underlines the difficult backdrop to government efforts to curb soaring patient backlogs.
The figures reveal that 8,902 pension awards were made to health staff in April this year, compared with 6,932 in April last year, an increase of 28 per cent. The previous record, based on NHS data that goes back to 2008 obtained through a freedom of information request, was 7,384 in April 2015.
Pension awards, which include those paid for the first time at normal pension age or to people retiring early, usually peak in April at the end of the financial year.
“While there are a number of reasons that someone would be awarded their pension benefits, the most common is that they are retiring,” said Graham Crossley, NHS pension specialist at Quilter, the independent financial adviser that submitted the FOI request.
“We are hearing that healthcare workers are simply exhausted, feel undervalued and want out of the NHS for a better quality of life,” he added.
Revelations of the surge in demand for retirement benefits come as patients across the UK are facing record waiting times for appointments and treatment. Staff shortages grew to a 110,000 across the NHS by the end of 2021. More than a third of the unfilled posts were for unregistered nurses, according to the official data.
Meanwhile, the number of people waiting for surgery or other procedures in hospitals rose to an all-time high of 6.4mn at the end of March this year, up from around 4.4mn people in December 2019 before the pandemic.
In April, the Health Service Journal reported a leaked letter from senior NHS managers to a trust chief executive, which warned that patients were routinely waiting more than 60 hours to be admitted to a bed from accident and emergency, leaving staff “crying with frustration and anger”.
In response, the British Medical Association, the largest doctors’ union, warned on Monday that the situation could deteriorate significantly if the government did not fully address issues that were pushing senior doctors and GPs to retire early to avoid huge tax bills for breaching their annual pension savings allowance.
“It is hugely concerning that record numbers of staff have retired this April, but sadly this comes as no surprise,” said Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA’s consultants’ and pensions committees.
“Despite incredible pressures, the chancellor steadfastly refuses to make the necessary changes to the pension taxation rules that are leaving thousands of our most experienced doctors with little option but to reduce their hours or retire early.
“Unless the government takes urgent action, staff will continue to retire in record numbers over the next 12 months.”
Caroline Waterfield, director of development and employment at NHS Employers, which is part of the NHS Confederation that represents organisations across the sector, said “the NHS needs all the flexibility it can get to retain staff”. This includes reforms to pension benefits for all staff, not just the highest earners.
“It’s critical we have a system which has options for all NHS staff to be able to continue to afford to be part of the pension scheme and access the range of benefits scheme membership provides,” she said.
The Department of Health said: “The decision to claim pension benefits is a personal choice and the NHS Business Services Authority does not request this information.
“Staff may choose to claim benefits for a range of reasons and it is not possible to attribute this increase to one single factor.”
Source: Financial Times