Health Unions have slammed the government’s decision to reject a new pay deal for pharmacists designed to attract more into the profession and fill the growing number of vacant positions across the nation.

The NHS Pay Review body has recommended a recruitment and retention premium for junior pharmacists of between £500 and £5,000 per year to help address dwindling numbers in the profession.

Currently, 22% of pharmacists’ posts are vacant across England and Wales and, according to the UK’s largest health union UNISON, the premia put forward by the PRB “is a sensible way to plug the gap”.

However, Health Secretary Andy Burnham has vetoed the recommendation. While he admitted that the pharmacy profession is facing recruitment issues, these are localised problems and not serious enough to warrant across-the-board pay increases especially in the current economic climate.

"Where there are problems, I am content that the best way to tackle them is by increasing supply and using local recruitment and retention premia where needed alongside specific local initiatives to support the training and development of junior pharmacists,” he said explaining his decision, reports BBC News Online.

But Mike Jackson, Senior National Officer for Health at UNISON, has criticised the decision, claiming that it will only serve to fuel pharmacist shortages. Furthermore, he argued that in rejecting the pay proposal, the government has undermined the integrity of the independent review body system, and voiced concern that the move could set a precedent for future awards by the PRB.

“The government and public would be outraged if unions took industrial action over a PRB award. Why should the government get away with such cavalier action?”, Jackson stressed.

Unite has also “expressed disbelief” over the government’s stance, and says it is seeking an “urgent” meeting with Burnham to ask him to review the decision.

25% lured to private sector
According to the union, 25% of NHS trainee pharmacists do not take up a permanent position within the NHS “as they are lured by the bigger salaries offered by the private sector” in which they can earn around £10,000 a year more, and it insists that awarding a recruitment and retention premium would have helped to staunch the current recruitment crisis.

In addition, Unite research estimates that awarding the premia would cost around £12 million a year, yet it also points out that the health service shelled out almost double this (£23.8 million) on locums to help fill pharmacist gaps in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year.

“Not to implement the recommendations of the PRB clearly does not make economic or common sense,” said Unite national officer for Health Karen Reay, and she warned that “continuing with such high pharmacist vacancy levels will have a negative impact on services”.