Nurses working night shifts should get concessions on NHS parking fees in England, under a set of principles announced by the government.
The Department of Health said the guidance, published on Saturday, was intended to provide “clear and consistent ground rules” that will help manage car parking provision in the NHS.
The move follows lobbying by Tory backbenchers and a number of recent stories on the issue.
“These clear ground rules set out our expectations, and will help the public hold the NHS to account for unfair charges”
The principles stated that NHS car parking charges “should be reasonable for the area” that the organisation was located in.
It also said concessions, including free or reduced charges or caps, should be available for staff working shifts that meant public transport cannot be used. Similar concessions should be available too for frequent outpatient attenders and visitors with relatives who are “gravely ill”.
In addition, the DH said priority for staff parking should be based on need, for example, staff whose daily duties require them to travel by car such as nurses who visit patients at home.
It added that routine travel between hospital sites might more sensibly be managed by providing internal transport.
The DH also told trusts that they should consider installing “pay on exit” or similar schemes so drivers just paid for the time that they have actually used.
Fines should only be imposed “where reasonable” and should be waived when overstaying is “beyond the driver’s control”, such as when staff are required to work beyond their scheduled shift, the DH principles said.
The guidance also stated that trusts were responsible for the actions of private contractors who run car parks on their behalf and that they should act against “rogue contractors” in line with relevant codes of practice.
In a statement, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Patients and families shouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of unfair parking charges.
“These clear ground rules set out our expectations, and will help the public hold the NHS to account for unfair charges or practices,” he said.
The publication of the guidance follows increased attention on the issue of NHS car parking charges in England over recent weeks.
For years, the DH has argued that the setting and collecting of parking charges is down to local trusts to decide, but Mr Hunt acknowledged in July that parking costs at some hospitals “are just too high”.
Mr Hunt was speaking during a parliamentary debate brought by Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, who has been campaigning on the issue of “ever-increasing” charges for staff and patients.
The health secretary and the prime minister both subsequently agreed to meet with Mr Halfon to discuss the topic further.
Responding to the new guidance, Mr Halfon said it was “a very welcome announcement”, but added that he would “still like to see hospital parking fees scrapped altogether”.
Duleep Allirajah, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Hospitals must not ignore government guidance and commit to implementing the guidelines as a matter of urgency so that cancer patients do not continue to pay unfair hospital parking charges.
“Sadly some cancer patients in England are paying extortionate hospital car parking charges in order to access treatment for a life-threatening illness,” he said.
The stance in Westminster on NHS parking fees – of both Conservative and Labour governments in recent years – has been in stark contrast to Wales and Scotland, where the devolved administrations have largely removed such charges.
Last week, the union Unite attacked South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust for introducing charges of £1.20 an hour or £12 a month from 1 July. It claimed the fees were “extortionate” and went as far as calling the trust “immoral”.
Meanwhile, nearly 19,500 people have signed an e-petition set up by a healthcare assistant calling for free parking for NHS staff. The e-petition demands immediate action to end “disgraceful” parking charges for NHS workers and nurses in particular.
Nursing Times campaigned on the issue of parking charges in 2008-09. Our Free Parking campaign called on trusts to drop “unfair” charges for staff.