Announcing the life assurance scheme, Matt Hancock said ‘financial worries should be the last thing on the minds of their families’.
But what does this mean for doctors? How far will it go to ease financial hardship in their families after such an awful tragedy?
BMA pensions committee chair Vishal Sharma (pictured) says the one-off payment might seem sizeable but came ‘nowhere near’ what was needed for families who have lost lifetimes of income for the death of their loved ones on the front line.
‘Increasing numbers of families are dealing with the loss of a loved one as the death toll for frontline workers rises,’ he added. ‘They should not also face a future without financial security.’
Call for cover
The BMA has long called for fairer DIS (death-in-service) payments for families of NHS staff. Such calls intensified as the pandemic began claiming the lives of their colleagues. As payments are made through the NHS pension scheme they are subject to complex rules and qualifications. Unlike COVID-19, they do discriminate.
How much families receive depends on how long they’ve paid into pension schemes, whether they are still paying into it. For locums, it can even depend on whether they die on a day they’re at work.
During the pandemic, where so many doctors are putting their lives at greater risk, the BMA has called for an automatic extension of full DIS cover for all NHS workers.
Under the pension rules, families or dependants of doctors who have paid into their pension pots for fewer than two years will receive a lump sum payment. But they do not qualify for the regular monthly payments of a survivor’s pension.
This restriction automatically excludes tens of thousands of new doctors at work in the UK NHS, the majority of whom have come to work here from abroad. GMC figures show that 33,729 doctors have joined the medical register in two years until the end of March 2020. Fifty-seven per cent of new registrants in this period are from abroad.
Families lose out
BMA medical students committee co-chair Gurdas Singh (pictured) points to the thousands of final-year medical students fast-tracked into foundation-year doctor roles whose families will not qualify for survivors’ pensions.
‘There are quite a few medical students who have children. Those in more junior years are more likely to receive lower amounts of benefit. Is this payment going to go very far? A lot of medical students take care of their parents,’ he added. ‘A few of my friends have lost theirs. If they die, then the family loses household income.’
Linking survivors’ amounts from pensions to years or service or age could appear to be a form of age discrimination, Mr Singh added. ‘It shouldn’t really matter how long we have been in this. It is a smack in the face. It is grossly unfair.’
Many of the fast-tracked medical graduates are also working on lower-paid agenda-for-change contracts to help battle COVID-19. Their families will also not qualify for survivors’ pensions.
Another group of doctors discriminated against by the rules are locum GPs. Their DIS payments are much reduced if they die on days they are not working. The BMA has called for this rule to be changed, including taking legal action in a case which it lost.
Stockport locum GP Mark Coley said he welcomed the announcement of the £60,000 lump sum. ‘However, it seems odd to add in a new level of assurance when for many of us in the NHS pension scheme, the Government could do so much more and ensure eligibility for the existing DIS payments.
‘If I were to die on a day that I had not been contracted to work I would not get the same benefits as someone in a salaried, partner or officer role,’ Dr Coley added. ‘My benefits, it seems, change on a day-to-day basis depending on if I was booked or not. If Government wanted to provide the same cover to locum GPs it could have done this by now. It has been asked often enough.’
The BMA’s Dr Sharma said he was also very concerned about the way the pension rules disadvantaged doctors who had left the pension scheme. Many had done so very recently to avoid paying huge tax bills because of the Government’s punitive pension tax.
Derbyshire GP Peter Holden (pictured) is one of another large group of ‘remainer’ doctors forced to temporarily leave the NHS pension scheme because their pensionable earnings had reached the lifetime limit.
‘I left the NHS for a month and then I came back to work,’ he said. ‘People may say, well you’re quite well off and that’s true, when I am working. But I have children who are still to finish secondary school. If I died, my household income would absolutely crash.’
Having left and rejoined the pension scheme in 2015, Dr Holden said he no longer knows whether DIS payments for his family would be calculated on four or 41 years of service.
Dr Sharma said the BMA would be ‘examining closely’ the detail of the Government’s life-assurance scheme.
‘Losing a loved one during these horrific times will be difficult enough for families, without the added pressure of losing what may be their main source of income, leaving them unsure of what the future holds,’ he said.