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Northern Ireland BMA chair says coronavirus life assurance scheme pledge an 'insult' to frontline workers

Dr Tom Black

The chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland has described a new life assurance scheme for health and social care staff who die from Covid-19 as a "terrible insult" to workers.

The life assurance scheme, announced in London on Monday, means dependants of those that die in England and Wales will receive a £60,000 lump sum, worth roughly twice the average pensionable pay for NHS staff, with the cost met by the government.

The money - health officials said - is comparable to what would have been offered to an average staff member through the NHS Pension Scheme.

They said the scheme payment would be made in addition to any death benefit purchased by a staff member and that locum and agency staff would be supported by the scheme in their roles in the delivery of NHS services.

It will operate on a temporary basis and will only provide death in service benefits for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

The system of payments for frontline workers in Northern Ireland has not yet been announced. However, the Department of Health said it was committed to developing a "fair and effective" scheme for providing life assurance.

But Dr Tom Black said the scheme announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock means certain groups of doctors will not receive their full pension entitlement in a move he described as "penny-pinching" by the Westminster government.

He also said he was no longer willing to put forward doctors to work in Covid centres or wards because their family would not receive the usual entitlements if they died.

"We will instead, and this is what we have been doing for the last month, we will put forward older doctors like me who are more at risk because governments won't pay a pension to the widows of the younger doctors, that's not acceptable," he said, speaking to the BBC's Talkback programme.

Dr Black said that when the Covid pandemic emerged all healthcare workers stepped into the breach.

"Nobody hesitated, there were problems with PPE, we took it on the chin and kept working," he said.

He claimed doctors will now be disadvantaged if they die in those circumstances after normally expecting to receive double their annual pay and approximately half their pension.

"Certain groups of doctors such as GP locums or people who are out of the pension scheme, retired members who came back or very young doctors who are in the first two years of their career, those groups will not get that.

"We're basically saying to their widow, widower or their children, do you know what, there's 60 grand but you won't get the pension rights that you would normally get in these circumstances.

"Now that's not a kick in the teeth, that's a terrible insult to the profession who stepped up in this circumstance. That's really not acceptable, it's penny-pinching from the Treasury in London," he said.

In a further comment to the Belfast telegraph, Dr Black said: "Scotland is offering standard death in service payments to those in that situation, but what is being proposed by Matt Hancock is a single one-off payment that would leave families without an ongoing pension.

"In the best case no-one would ever need to access this fund, but some doctors’ families might. In particular younger doctors who have not joined the pension scheme, those who have answer the call to return from retirement to assist with the pandemic, locum doctors who do not have a fixed employer and those who may have opted out of the pension scheme.

"We know that our Minister is still weighing up how best to use this funding in Northern Ireland and we would strongly urge that it is a full death in service benefit not a single payment. Our frontline doctors and their families deserve nothing less."

Speaking on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Nothing can make up for the tragic loss of a loved one during this pandemic. We owe a huge debt to those who die in service to our nation and are doing everything we can to protect them.

“Financial worries should be the last thing on the minds of their families so in recognition of these unprecedented circumstances we are expanding financial protection to NHS and social care workers delivering publicly funded care on the frontline.

“We will continue to strive night and day to provide them with the support and protection they need and deserve to keep them safe as they work tirelessly to save lives.”

A Northern Ireland department of Health statement said the health minister was considering which model represents the best fit for Northern Ireland and which "most equitably reflects the important contributions being made for our health service".

"Different approaches are being taken in different UK regions and the Minister will reach decision shortly, having examined the different options."

Belfast Telegraph