Doctors and nurses will be awarded an inflation-busting pay rise this week in an attempt by the Government to give staff a pre-Christmas fillip and restore public confidence in the ailing National Health Service.

Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, will announce that the rises for hospital doctors, 80,000 nurses, and 36,000 GPs to be recommended by their pay review bodies will be paid in full from 1 April.

Mr Milburn took the unusual step of appealing to the review bodies to be generous with pay recommendations to help the NHS recruit and retain more doctors and nurses to ease the over-stretched hospitals and surgeries, and to repair low staff morale.

The figures were being kept a closely guarded secret but the professions' leaders are expecting rises of at least 4 per cent from April.

The Health Secretary announced last week that the NHS was succeeding in reversing the chronic shortage of nurses and had recruited an extra 10,000 nurses and midwives in the past year, partly from abroad.

But ministerial sources said the recruitment of family doctors was proving more difficult. A joint submission to the Doctors and Dentists Pay Review Body by the British Medical Association and the Health Department stressed the importance of delivering a pay rise that would help to attract more doctors into general practice, and also help to keep them. The Government is committed to recruiting an extra 2,000 GPs to fulfil its 10-year plan but training is slow.

GPs have complained bitterly about long hours, and growing demands in their surgeries. They were incensed by a commitment in the NHS 10-year plan that by 2004 all patients will be able to see a doctor within 48 hours.

BMA said 10,000 extra doctors would be needed, and warned that there was overwhelming support for a mass resignation from the NHS, if pay and conditions were not improved. The Prime Minister responded by offering family doctors "golden hellos" and cash bonuses to stay on instead of retiring.

Mr Milburn was infuriated last year when a leak suggested that some nurses would get pay rises of 8 per cent. This week's pay awards for GPs will be seen as an interim deal, pending a new agreement more geared to delivering the Government's health priorities than the existing contract which awards higher pay according to the number of patients on a doctor's list.

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