Pensions inequity fuels doctor retention decline

by Jennifer Trueland

It’s not surprising that numbers play a prominent part in any discussion about pensions. But the statistics quoted by Russell Walshaw made for some stark listening.

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 14 September 2021
36519 Russell walshaw gp

Numbers of doctors leaving the NHS pension scheme – 50,000.

Numbers of doctors retiring early – trebled since 2008.

Proportion of doctors who told a BMA survey they were planning to retire early – more than half.

Current shortfall in medical workforce – 50,000.

Chance of government achieving its commitment to increase the number of GPs by 6,000 – practically nil.

Any doctor can, of course, make a personal decision to leave the NHS pension scheme or to retire early. But it is telling that so many of them are doing so because of punitive pension taxes and regulations.

Tax deterrent

Dr Walshaw, a retired GP from Lincolnshire, outlined the current position that doctors find themselves in – and the detrimental impact that this will have on patients.

‘Who is going to care for us? Why are doctors worn out? Why are doctors choosing not to work additional hours to help the NHS catch up with the current enormous backlog of care? Why are medical graduates leaving medicine? It’s probably the workload, being not appreciated, or rewarded properly, not being valued. It’s unfilled vacancies, having to do the work of two or more people.’

On top of that, poor pension arrangements act as a major disincentive, including a lifetime allowance frozen for five years, and punitive taxation on any pension savings that exceed the allowance.

It’s also about pension arrangements that actively encourage doctors not to take on extra work because they could pay more in taxes than they would actually earn.

‘There are, of course, many more answers,’ added Dr Walshaw. ‘But the [BMA] survey shows that the current pension arrangements need radical reform as one of the keys in retaining doctors in the NHS.’

Excellence penalty

The Doctor magazine has repeatedly covered pension iniquities – telling the stories, for example, of doctors facing vast tax bills after receiving clinical excellence awards, and the BMA continues to campaign on these issues.

Dr Walshaw commended the work of the BMA pensions committee and called on the BMA to press hard to eliminate these ‘punitive disincentives’.

He was backed by chair of council Chaand Nagpaul, who said that he had raised the issues of pensions with the health secretary Sajid David within two days of his taking office.

‘It’s actually in the government’s own interests to resolve this if it’s going to have any hope of the profession being able to cope, and being available to deal with the challenges ahead,' he said.