In April health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced a new 'life assurance scheme' that would guarantee a £60,000 lump sum to the families of frontline NHS staff who die during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scheme was created to extend protection to NHS staff who fall outside the existing death-in-service benefits available under the NHS pension scheme, such as locums and young doctors.
It followed weeks of campaigning by doctors’ groups, who accused the government of dragging its heels on the issue.
However, the scheme has been criticised by doctors in England who say it does not go as far as measures introduced in Scotland - which offer locums parity to other NHS pension scheme members. GPs have warned that the English scheme could leave families at risk of long-term financial problems.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline that the government had to put locums’ minds at ease by introducing full assurances amid fears of a second COVID-19 spike - stressing there was no reason why it could not be agreed.
He said: ‘It was a real concern that the government didn’t put in a death-in-service scheme that would have supported locum GPs [at the beginning of the pandemic]. They’ve done that elsewhere in the UK, but not in England.
‘That wasn’t acceptable and it would have been the right thing for the government to do - they didn’t do that and haven’t done that yet.’
Death in service
‘None of us want to be in a situation where we are having to explain to relatives why their loved one wasn’t properly covered and it’s something that the government could very easily do. It has been done before and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be done now,’ he added.
In April the Scottish government confirmed that all staff including locums would be eligible for full death-in-service benefits during the pandemic.
It had been hoped that a similar arrangement could be agreed for locums in England, with BMA leaders announcing that they were close to a deal in late March. However, Dr Vautrey confirmed that the BMA was still waiting to hear from the Treasury over two months later.
‘Right at the beginning, the Treasury said it would do whatever it takes to get on top of this [pandemic], but they are yet to demonstrate this in general practice and I think we still need practices to be properly supported, not just now, but for any future costs that may come through a second wave in the next few months,’ he said.
In March GPonline reported that locum GPs turning down shifts over lack of protection during the pandemic, with a National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) survey finding almost half had made themselves less available.
Meanwhile, one GP locum told GPonline that they had been left ‘feeling completely undervalued’ by the way the government had organised locums during the pandemic.
Concerns over death-in-service rights for locum doctors have long been an issue of deep concern for the medical profession. The BMA lost a High Court case last year in which it argued that the denial of death-in-service payments to the family of a locum who happened to die on a day off was clearly unfair.