Nurses in parts of England are being offered “golden hellos” of up to £4,500 to work in the NHS – and not quit – amid fierce competition for staff.
As the government and the Royal College of Nursing remain in deadlock over pay, some NHS trusts desperate to fill posts have launched their own schemes to attract and retain recruits. The incentives – which include bonuses staggered over two years and relocation packages of up to £8,000 – vary by area and come as the health service grapples with critical shortages and high staff turnover.
One trust, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership, which provides services to 2 million patients in the north-west, is offering a £4,500 bonus to nurses joining its mental health and learning disability teams.
The money is paid in three instalments – £1,500 on accepting a post, £1,500 after 12 months and £1,500 after two years – on condition that all of it is repaid if they leave within six months, and 50% repaid if they leave within a year. The trust is also offering up to £8,000 to clinical staff joining the trust who live more than 40 miles away and need to relocate.
Leeds and York Partnership, which provides mental health and learning disability services, is offering a £1,000 “golden hello” to experienced nursing staff joining its older people’s inpatient team. The trust said it offered financial incentives for “difficult to recruit” roles and worked with local partners to ensure payments did not put it at an advantage over neighbouring trusts. At nearby Humber Teaching NHS foundation trust, new band-five nurses are offered a “non-recurrent £3,000 golden hello” regardless of speciality, according to a notice on its website.
NHS trusts in Cambridge, Essex and Hertfordshire are also offering incentives. In the capital, West London NHS trust is offering a £3,000 bonus paid over a year to mental health nurses taking up jobs with a starting salary of £25,655, according to a current job listing.
The payments, which are decided locally at each trust’s discretion, come amid the dispute between the government and the RCN. While most health unions accepted the government’s pay offer of a 5% rise and one-off payment for NHS workers earlier this month, the RCN did not. Its members will now vote on whether to hold another six months of industrial action.
Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s director for England, said the offer of “ad-hoc local financial incentives” by NHS trusts was a “desperate” measure that would not solve the workforce crisis.
“While it may help to attract nurses to those trusts deciding to do this, it is simply moving the problem from one trust to the next and creating a false sense of security that does not address the real problem,” she said. “The NHS needs a national solution to the national nursing workforce crisis – and that’s fair pay for nursing.”
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS services employing 1.2 million staff in England, said trusts were forced to use the incentives by high vacancy rates and “staff reporting high levels of burnout”.
“Trust leaders need to put patient safety first, often forcing them to consider a range of staffing options including recruitment incentives, expensive agency staffing and international recruitment to plug gaps in rotas,” she said.
“Staff concerns over the soaring cost of living are now also having to be factored into trusts’ recruitment and retention decisions. We need the government to publish its fully-funded long-term workforce plan for the NHS, which is vitally needed to tackle chronic staff shortages and boost education and training. The plan can’t come soon enough.”
Recruitment and retention incentives have long been offered by some private hospitals and care homes. Last year, care home provider Exemplar announced a £5,000 “welcome bonus” for nurses. In March, the Guardian reported that NHS doctors were being offered £5,000 cash bonuses to recruit NHS colleagues for jobs at private hospitals.
The government has also considered such measures. In May 2018, health secretary Steve Barclay, who was a health minister at the time, told MPs that his department planned to launch a “golden hello” scheme to attract postgraduate students in specific hard-to-recruit disciplines, including mental health and district nursing. But in December 2022, freedom of information requests by Nursing in Practice found that, four years on, no such payments had been made.
In the year to June 2022, 40,365 NHS nurses in England left active service – equivalent to one in nine, according to the Nuffield Trust. NHS Digital data shows that of those, about 15,000 nurses resigned, with 4,000 citing work-life balance as the reason.
The Department of Health and Social Care said pay frameworks permitted NHS trusts to offer incentives worth up to 30% of basic pay in response to “market pressures”. A spokesperson said: “We are growing the workforce and there are record numbers of NHS staff, including over 5,300 more doctors and over 12,300 more nurses compared to last year.
“We want to build on this progress and will publish a workforce plan shortly to ensure that we have the right numbers of staff, with the right skills to transform and deliver high-quality services fit for the future.”