The Government tried to boost flagging morale in the National Health Service yesterday by approving above-inflation pay rises for doctors, nurses and dentists.
In an announcement that was clearly aimed at attracting recruits, Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, revealed that nurses, midwives and health visitors would get an across-the-board rise of 3.6 per cent from next April.
Hospital doctors and dentists will also get 3.6 per cent, which is exactly four times the headline rate of inflation of 0.9 per cent and double the underlying rate of 1.8 per cent.
However, the Royal College of Nursing and Unison complained that their members would still be lagging way behind other workers in public services, such as newly qualified police officers and teachers.
The pay awards, which ministers based on recommendations of the independent NHS staff salaries' review bodies, met with a mixed reaction from nurses and doctors.
But Mr Milburn pointed out that, as well as the general increases, much bigger pay rises were being awarded to specific workers such as trainee GPs and some categories of hospital doctors.
GPs will receive a 4.6 per cent increase in fee income and trainee GPs will get a 19.5 per cent pay rise, while some 40,000 of the lowest paid nursing auxiliaries will be awarded a 4.3 per cent rise.
Senior house officers in hospitals will get an increase of 8.8 per cent and nurse consultants and "modern matrons" have been singled out for awards of at least 6.6 per cent to reflect their new responsibilities. Nurse consultants working in London will now be able to earn a maximum of £46,675.
After the across-the-board increases, a newly qualified nurse's pay packet will rise from £15,445 to £16,005 outside London and from £19,178 to £19,873 within London.
Mr Milburn said that the pay awards, which will not be staged, meant that the Government had followed the recommendations of the review bodies – something it has done for the fourth year in a row.
Mr Milburn said: 'These pay awards are well ahead of inflation and are richly deserved."
He added: "NHS staff do a great job for patients. These increases in pay are needed to get more staff working in the NHS and to keep them working in the NHS.
"Each year we have also targeted extra pay to improve both recruitment and retention of these important staff."
Mr Milburn said that such pay rises had already been shown to deliver results within the health service, with the number of nurses working in the NHS rising by 10,000 in the past year alone. There are now 27,000 more NHS nurses than when the Government came to office, he said.
Groups representing GPs, health visitors and midwives were all pleased with the rises, but nurses' unions and the British Medical Association expressed disappointment.
Beverly Malone, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said: "Nurses will feel sorely let down. We feel this award does not go far enough to tackle the problem of recruiting and retaining nurses within the health service."
"Pay is the single most effective factor to increase recruitment, improve retention and to demonstrate to nurses that they are valued.
"Frankly, this award is not good enough. The reality is that an experienced staff nurse [Grade E] earning just over £18,000 a year will see an increase of only £9 a week."
The British Medical Association had said that it wanted a pay rise of at least 5 per cent to tackle a chronic shortage of consultants.
Ian Bogle, the chairman of the British Medical Association, said the review body had "gone some way" towards recognising the problems of general practice, where more than 2,000 posts are vacant and 10,000 extra GPs are needed to meet the demands of Labour's NHS plan. But Peter Hawker, the chairman of the BMA's consultants and specialists committee, described the pay award as "disappointing".
He warned: "Consultants are beginning to vote with their feet because they feel overloaded and undervalued. The review body could have made a better start in tackling the problem, just as they have for my GP colleagues."
Backing its proposals, Downing Street described the settlement as "generous", saying the increases were reflecting the Labour Government's commitment to improving conditions for public sector workers. The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "If you look at the low inflation picture in the economy at the moment, these pay settlements are generous and constitute significant real-terms increases. This is a demonstration of the Government's commitment to rewarding people fairly who are working in the public sector."