Politicians may speak of ‘exiting’ the pandemic; the reality is anything but. There is, however, one aspect that is well and truly over for many doctors. What they’re exiting from in many parts of England is one of the few small perks gained during the pandemic – free staff parking at hospitals.
Charges often running to hundreds of pounds a year returned to many sites last month after a two-year pause. Doctors say it amounts to a tax on their work – a tax they have no choice but to pay, given their working hours and a lack of public transport alternatives.
‘Charging staff to come to work is wrong on every level and trusts shouldn’t be able to get away with it,’ says Mike Henley, a consultant urologist and chair of the BMA’s East Midlands regional consultants committee.
‘The pandemic brought it into sharp focus: when push comes to shove, the world doesn’t fall apart when staff parking is free.
‘I’ve always thought hospital car parking charges are iniquitous. Really, they are a direct subsidy to the running costs of the NHS. There are places that charge £2,000 a year for car parking. That’s some levy on your salary.’
Dr Henley says doctors often finish work at unpredictable times. ‘Quite often there’s no public transport, and doctors will be on their own. It’s quite different to many ordinary workplaces.’
Lower earners hit
Junior doctors, on lower salaries and working on rotations at hospitals that can involve lengthy travel, often feel the pinch the most.
Cristina Costache, a paediatric specialty trainee 3 in Yorkshire, says parking charges add to the real-terms ‘pay erosion’ of recent years.
‘We don’t earn that much as junior doctors and parking costs will probably continue to go up with inflation,’ she says, noting how many hospital staff look for nearby on-street parking to get round fees.
‘We don’t choose where we work as trainees – I can’t choose a trust that has no parking costs or good public transport.’
Charging staff to come to work is wrong on every levelDr Henley
In a previous part-time rotation at Bradford, Dr Costache was charged £35 a month to park, the full-time rate, ‘and it didn’t even have lights’. Safety concerns meant ‘we would never allow each other to walk out alone’, she recalls.
Dr Costache, a member of the BMA junior doctors committee, believes parking should be free for all NHS staff, and asks: ‘If you make some people pay and some people don’t pay then where do you draw the line?’
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There is a disparity across trusts. While fees are being reintroduced in England, Northern Ireland is removing hospital parking fees.
A bill was approved in March and received Royal Assent this month. Wales chose to abolish hospital parking charges in 2008, although this only came to fruition in 2018. Scotland made the move in 2009.
However, three PFI sites in Scotland – Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh – continued to charge staff to park until the pandemic.
To even things up, the Scottish Government spent £35m to buy car parks in Dundee and Glasgow from private providers in August 2021.
Staff at Edinburgh, meanwhile, are petitioning NHS Lothian over being asked to use a park-and-ride site they say adds up to two hours a day on to commutes and puts agency staff off taking roles, ‘making the hospitals unsafe with staffing levels’.
Alan Robertson, a consultant cardiologist at Ninewells and deputy co-chair of the BMA Scottish consultants committee, says the removal of the £35-a-month charge in Dundee was a de facto pay rise – and would make even more difference for staff at Edinburgh, who are charged £7.20 a day.
‘In Scotland we were given a £500 COVID thank you payment, but that was taxed so free parking was more financially beneficial,’ he says, as he spells out the challenges doctors face with using public transport – such as working overtime late into the night, working across multiple NHS sites, childcare commitments, and commuting from suburbs to cities. ‘People were really pleased.’
There are places that charge £2,000 a year for car parkingDr Henley
Referring to England, he says: ‘After a couple of years of not paying, I can see how it would annoy people – certainly if there’s a postcode-lottery element.’
And there is, as it stands. The BMA has been told at least seven trusts extended free parking until 1 May, two did so indefinitely, two more deferred charges for three months and one has told staff it has delayed its decision on the issue.
Two stressed they never charged staff to park. Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust reintroduced staff parking fees at £30 a month on 1 April; Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust plans to reintroduce fees at 2020 levels, but not for a month, while Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust postponed the reintroduction of fees for three months.
Shanu Datta, a consultant psychiatrist in Lancashire and South Cumbria, and deputy chair of the BMA consultants committee, says: ‘Staff have long felt car parking charges are a tax on work.
‘Charges are very much subject to the whims of individual trusts and their boards. It’s really opaque for staff. It’s a de facto tax. If the devolved nations can afford [to make staff parking free], why can’t trusts in England?’
Trusts in England raked in £90,098,213 in staff parking fees in the 2019/20 financial year, according to NHS England’s Estates Returns Information Collection data.
This came from charges at 159 of 214 non-ambulance trusts. In 2020/21 – the year fees were removed – £5,272,594 was earned from 71 trusts. When he was working weekly clinics at Rochdale Royal Infirmary at the peak of COVID, Dr Datta noticed ‘they didn’t change the signage’ meaning ‘all the costs and penalty notices were still there’.
Rochdale Infirmary, part of the Northern Care Alliance NHS Foundation Trust, is recorded in the NHS Digital data under the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which made £175,626 from staff parking fees in 2020/21, and £317,455 from patients.
Dr Datta says: ‘Members of the public, and I dare say some staff, were still paying. Some didn’t believe me when I said it was free, and others didn’t want to fight the hospital over a fine.’
The removal of free parking was the tipping point for the morale of the NHS staffDr Viz
He reported the same issue at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust – which took £9,503 in staff parking fees in 2020/21, and £180,533 from patients – when he went there for his first vaccine.
UHCW (University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust) went from zero income in 2019/20 to earning the most of all trusts, £904,434, in 2020/21. A car park with an additional 1,600 spaces was opened in March 2022 in response to a lack of spaces. But the deal, with property developer Prime Plc, came at a cost to staff.
Monthly parking costs at Coventry, and St Cross Rugby, rose from £43 to £50 per month as of 1 April. UHCW local negotiating committee chair Prakash Satodia says the extra spaces were a ‘welcome development’ but ended up a ‘trade off’ for higher prices.
‘It’s an above-inflation rise when the cost of living is going up,’ he says. ‘The trust will argue we had it free for the last year or so, but that doesn’t stand because that was paid by Government.’
Dr Satodia points out no profits from staff, or patient, parking go to the trust because it is part of a PFI (private finance initiative) contract. ‘When they cut my PAs and increase parking charges, they are taking from Peter to pay Paul,’ he adds.
‘Health can’t be a business.’ Dr Datta believes parking fees are ‘particularly galling’ for staff who pay through salary sacrifice as it reduces their pension contributions ‘for the privilege of parking your car at work’.
He says that, while the issue has ‘long been a bone of contention’, the current cost of living crisis is a good time to lobby for universal free parking for NHS staff.
Meenal Viz, a junior doctor who made it on to the cover of British Vogue for her campaigning for the protection of healthcare workers in the first wave of COVID, has used her following to help gather more than 13,000 signatures on a Parliament petition calling for staff parking to be free permanently.
‘The removal of free parking was the tipping point for the morale of the NHS staff,’ she says. ‘As doctors we run through walls for our patients and show up whatever the circumstances. What we’re not happy with is how the Government keeps telling us how they’re on our side then does things, like this, that clearly show otherwise.’
Dr Viz, who pays about £40 a month to park at work, believes the strength of feeling exists to overturn the health secretary’s decision and make hospital car parking free for staff again.
‘You can see it on the ground level,’ she says. ‘We’re still dealing with the pandemic, and there’s the backlog. The Government has shown the money is there, we just need the political will. And there’s enough support that we can challenge this decision.’
Buckinghamshire GP Anthony Gallagher was behind a 2020 petition which amassed huge support and is credited with prompting the Government’s decision to offer free parking. His change.org page now has more than 1.1 million signatories.
It’s a form of income tax exclusive to NHS workersDr Gallagher
Dr Gallagher questions how significant income gained from staff parking is to trusts compared with wasted costs, such as the £8.7bn the Department of Health and Social Care wrote off in overspend on PPE (personal protective equipment) purchased in the same financial year. While he accepts trusts ‘are not given the funding necessary to do the job they are asked to do’ he believes charging staff to park at work is ‘unreasonable’, pandemic or not.
‘It’s a form of income tax exclusive to NHS workers,’ he says, pointing to a knock-on effect on morale: ‘Once you have a policy to charge you have to have a policy to fine those that can’t afford to pay the charge and that leads to recruitment and retainment problems and staff shortages as well as stress and suffering.’
Dr Henley calculates that, over more than 25 years, he has spent upwards of six months of his time purely walking between his parking space and the area of the hospitals he has worked at.
‘What a waste of time,’ he says. But he has a bigger issue: ‘It’s respect for what doctors do as a profession, the stresses and unpredictability of the job. There’s a risk that, because car parking charges are coming back, it’s going to make people question their relationship with their employer.
‘Charging staff for car parking is, quite simply, either a money-making scheme for cash-strapped trusts or a cash cow for private companies.’ Dr Gallagher draws the same conclusion: ‘If a few pounds here or there is really operation critical, [trusts] need better management. Charging staff to park at work is surely the laziest and least effective solution to the NHS funding problem.’
Illustration by Simon Grant