£30 million paid out to north's GPs as part of age-related 'bonus' scheme
MORE than £30 million has been paid out in age-related 'bonuses' to Northern Ireland GPs over the past five years under a scheme that is due to be scrapped for doctors in England.
The Irish News has learned that an average of £6m has been distributed annually among 1,100 family doctors on top of their wages since 2012 in recognition of their years of service.
The so-called 'seniority payments' are also seen as a cash incentive to encourage older GPs to remain in work - with a quarter of family doctors in the north now over the age of 55.
Four years ago the NHS in England announced the scheme - worth an extra £8,000 a year for experienced GPs - was to be phased out by 2020 as part of a British government measure to axe age-related pay increases across the public sector.
The Irish News asked the Health and Social Care Board, which confirmed it had paid out the £30m bill, why similar plans were not being introduced in Northern Ireland.
A Board spokeswoman said that the payments are "a matter for discussion" between the Department of Health and the British Medical Association (BMA).
GP contracts across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all negotiated separately with their devolved administrations and BMA chiefs.
Dr Tom Black, who heads up the north's BMA GP committee insisted last night the extra payments "were not bonuses" and "formed part of their contracts".
He also dismissed the idea that the English payments were being phased out, branding it a 'cosmetic exercise'.
"No savings in funding terms have been made in England as they are taking the money out but putting it back in.
"There would be as absolute riot if this money was removed from salaries of English doctors."
Dr Black said he had been involved in negotiations with the Department of Health in the north during which he advised them not to remove seniority payments due to its ageing GP workforce and staff shortages.
Several surgeries in rural areas, including Co Fermanagh, have been forced to close practices in recent months leaving massive patient backlogs.
"We have a much older cohort of GPs in Northern Ireland, the oldest in the UK, where a quarter are over the age of 55 but are doing 30 per cent of day work," Dr Black said.
"The last thing we need is to lose senior staff and we must protect the earnings of the older GPs. Despite shortages we have the most efficient workforce and one of the lowest sickness absence rates."
Last week the Irish News reported that £14 million in bonuses had been paid out to top consultants over the past two years as part of the Clinical Excellence awards scheme.
Breedagh Hughes, director of the Royal College of Midwives, criticised the GP seniority payments at a time of severe midwifery shortages due to retirement and cuts to midwifery training places.
"At a time when midwives haven't had a pay increase in six years, an extra payment of £30 million for GPs over five years is totally inequitable," she said.
"This is public sector money and is being used when whole wards are closing because there isn't enough nursing staff.
"Maybe these payments could be used to train new midwives or new GPs instead of lining the pockets of older doctors."