More than half a million NHS workers will not need to pay any more into their pensions next year under new proposals announced by the Government aimed at resolving the bitter public sector dispute.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the proposals were an improvement, benefiting 530,000 staff by raising the threshold for freezing pension contributions from £15,000 to £26,557 for 2012/13.
The change will protect lower-paid staff in the health service, with increased contributions distributed among higher earners.
Unison criticised the timing of the announcement as "unhelpful" when pensions negotiations are continuing.
Head of health Christina McAnea said: "The proposed increase in pension contributions will still hit more than half of all NHS staff who are already struggling to cope with the pay freeze and rising inflation."
Mr Lansley said: "Having listened to staff and stakeholders, we have improved our proposals so that an extra 530,000 NHS staff will not pay any more into their pensions next year.
"Public service pensions will remain among the very best available, providing a guaranteed pension level for all employees - today very few private sector employers still offer this. But people are living longer and pensions are costing taxpayers more and more every year.
"These changes alone will not be enough to ensure that NHS pensions are affordable in the long term. We are continuing to discuss wider changes to pensions with trades unions and hope to reach an agreement by the end of the year. But we are clear that people will also keep whatever they have already earned."
Proposals for pension contributions in 2013/14 and 2014/15 would be subject to further discussions with the unions.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: "Once again, the Government is attempting to mislead the workforce and the public about the true impact of their proposals. The harsh reality of what the Government is pushing today is that middle-earners - the squeezed middle of health visitors, speech and language therapists, biomedical scientists and pharmacists - will be the ones paying for these increased contributions in this smash and grab raid."