Scotland offers locum death-in-service guarantee as Westminster dithers

Scotland has guaranteed that all staff including locums will be eligible for full death-in-service benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, as doctors' leaders hit out at the Westminster government's failure to deliver an equivalent promise.

Scottish parliament (Photo: Rolling Earth/Getty Images)
Scottish parliament (Photo: Rolling Earth/Getty Images)

Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman has struck a deal with all major health unions in Scotland, including the BMA, to guarantee that 'all staff affected by COVID-19 as a result of providing frontline treatment for COVID-19 patients will receive the full lump sum and survivor’s pension benefits available under the terms of the NHS pension scheme'.

Permanent staff and staff on fixed-term contracts who are not members of the NHS pension scheme, as well as bank and locum staff working for the health service during the pandemic will be included in the scheme, the Scottish government has confirmed.

In a statement on the BMA website, BMA Scotland's pensions lead Dr Alan Robertson said the union was awaiting full details of the package, but said he was 'delighted', adding: 'This definitely appears to be a welcome step forward: based on the top-level details we are aware of, the Scottish government certainly seems to be responding fully to the key asks made by the BMA and others.'

Death in service

The BMA has been calling for protection for several groups of doctors who risk missing out on death in service benefits if they die during the COVID-19 pandemic - and said it was 'disappointed' that the Westminster government has yet to provide guarantees in line with those from Scotland.

BMA leaders said last month that a zero hours contract could protect locums from missing out on death in service benefits - and has now published model terms that practices can use in the absence of a government guarantee. The model terms are 'aimed at GPs who are exclusively engaged as a locum and have no underlying Type 2 role (for example a salaried role) in order to provide access to employment benefits such as maintaining continuous coverage of death-in-service benefits while supporting COVID-19 services'.

Death-in-service rights for locum doctors have long been a key issue for the BMA - the union fought and lost a High Court case last year over a doctor whose family was denied full death-in-service benefits because she died on a day off - despite being a full contributor to the NHS pension scheme, having worked for the NHS in the days before her death and having future sessions booked.

The BMA has warned that under existing rules, retired doctors returning to work during the pandemic could also lose out because they cannot re-join the NHS pension scheme, meaning their families would not be eligible for a death-in-service lump sum payments if they were to die.

NHS pensions

Medical students stepping up to work in the pandemic and junior doctors would be eligible for only minimal death-in-service payments under existing rules - while doctors forced to leave the pension scheme temporarily to avoid huge tax penalties that have severely damaged the NHS workforce in recent times also need death-in-service guarantees.

BMA pensions committee chair Dr Vishal Sharma said: 'Given the large number of deaths of health care workers during these unprecedented times, doctors must be able to feel confident that should the absolute worst happen to them, their dependents will be properly provided for.

'It is disappointing, that despite continued lobbying from the BMA on this issue, the Westminster government have yet to offer any formal guarantees on this. This contrasts with the situation in Scotland where the health secretary has announced that all healthcare workers will be covered by full death-in-service benefits if they sadly die as a result of COVID-19.

'Given the trepidation that many doctors and healthcare workers face as they take significant risks on the frontline each day to care for patients, it is only right that they should have these assurances.'

COVID-19 pandemic

Outlining the Scottish deal, a spokesperson for Scotland's health department said: 'The health secretary recognises how important the death-in-service benefit is to NHS staff. That is why we have agreed with the principal health service unions, including the BMA, RCN and Unison, that all staff affected by COVID-19 as a result of providing frontline treatment for COVID-19 patients will receive the full lump sum and survivor’s pension benefits available under the terms of the NHS pension scheme: this includes permanent and fixed-term staff who are not members of the pension scheme, NHS bank and NHS locum staff. This will ensure parity between colleagues and provide reassurance for staff in these unprecedented times.'

The BMA has said that it is yet to hear from the Treasury after writing to chancellor Rishi Sunak on 31 March to call for death-in-service guarantees.

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'The death of any NHS worker is a tragedy and the whole country recognises the bravery of nurses, doctors, social care workers and many others who put themselves at risk to save lives during this global outbreak.

'We are evaluating the existing financial support for families of those on the frontline.'

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