Health bodies and unions welcomed reforms to pension rules in the spring Budget but found no cause to cheer the Chancellor when it came to funding commitments for an NHS workforce plan.
Scrapping the tax-free cap on the lifetime pensions allowance "should effectively close the floodgates" on senior doctors leaving the health service early, declared the British Medical Association (BMA), which had fought a long campaign to end what it called "punitive" financial penalties deterring high earners from remaining in post and working extra hours.
Delivering his first Budget, Jeremy Hunt said his reform, which also increased the pensions annual tax-free allowance from £40,000 to £60,000, would "stop over 80% of NHS doctors from receiving a tax charge". However, interviewed this morning on "BBC Breakfast", Mr Hunt, a former health secretary, admitted it was "impossible" to know how many doctors would be encouraged to return to work or take on extra shifts as a result of his decision. "We do know that we have a shortage of doctors, and we know we have a very big backlog, and that is why we've decided this is a very important measure to get the NHS working," he told the programme.
Despite being dismissed as a "bung" for the top 1% of earners by Labour, which promised to reverse abolition of the tax-free cap should it win power, the pension reform measures were welcomed by NHS Providers. Chief Executive, Sir Julian Hartley, said: "At a time when the Government is seeking to get more people back into work, including those who are unable to do so because of health conditions and record care backlogs, the value of retaining highly skilled staff cannot be under-estimated."
Still Waiting for a Workforce Plan
However, Sir Julian said it was "disappointing" that the Chancellor had failed to announce further details of how the Government planned to address health service staffing shortages. Mr Hunt told MPs on Wednesday that the Government would "shortly publish the long-term workforce plan I promised in the Autumn Statement", and Sir Julian said there was an "expectation that it will be appropriately detailed, with staff numbers, costs, and funding to match".
Patricia Marquis, director for England at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) noted that, "the Chancellor found billions to cut fuel duties but left those working in health and care with little assurance they will get the funding that is urgently required".
The omission of any financial measures aimed specifically at health and social care was also noted by several bodies. In his Budget speech, Mr Hunt linked "long-term, sustainable, healthy growth" in the economy to funding for the NHS and social care system. Ms Marquis said the Chancellor would know that "ill health and NHS waiting lists are a primary driver of economic inactivity", and that, "only by investing in the NHS and those who keep it running, will we have a healthy population to boost the economy".
NHS providers said that a long-anticipated announcement on a new hospitals building programme was "sorely lacking" from the Budget, while help to meet a £10.75 billion maintenance backlog across the NHS was also absent.
Care England, which represents independent providers of adult social care in England, described the Budget as a "missed opportunity". Chief Executive, Professor Martin Green, said: "With an ageing population and demand for services to increase, the Government requires a sustainable roadmap for the social care sector that will meet the country's social needs and support the NHS in reducing waiting lists."