Frontline NHS nurses could in future be allowed to retire earlier with trusts paying higher pension contributions to cover the cost, Nursing Times has learnt.
Older nurses might also be moved out of frontline roles, under options being looked at to counter concerns over the government’s controversial plans to extend the retirement age of NHS staff to 68.
A review group has been set up to investigate the potential for employers to allow some staff to take early retirement, with the cost covered by the increased pension contributions also set to be introduced by the unpopular reforms.
Early retirement would only be made available to staff identified as potentially suffering a “detriment” from being made to work to an older age, suggesting many nurses would be covered by the move.
Nursing Times has been told a review group will meet for the first time in September, as part of a year-long investigation of what the impact of making NHS staff work longer will be. It will include representatives from unions, the Department of Health and trust representative body NHS Employers.
From 2015 the retirement age for NHS staff will be linked to the state pension age, which is set to increase to 66 by 2020, 67 by 2036 and 68 by 2046.
The proposal has drawn widespread criticism from nurses who questioned whether people in their late 60s could cope with the physical nature of many frontline nursing roles.
The objectives set for the review group state that it will “explore the option” of employers paying early retirement costs for staff “identified as suffering a detriment for working longer with particular reference to staff in frontline and demanding roles”.
It will look at evidence from other countries and examine how NHS trusts could change their practices and behaviours to support an older workforce.
This could also include flexible careers to allow some staff to be moved away from frontline duties as they near retirement age.
Unison national officer for health Sara Gorton said: “What we need to do now to move things forward is to produce data to clearly identify where there are particular job characteristics or employer types that have a big or unusual impact on working age issues.”
She noted that the existing proposals for pension reform would allow early retirement if staff paid extra contributions themselves, which would also be matched by employers.
“There are draft proposals that the government could implement, and they contain a clause to allow early retirement where members of staff could pay extra contributions, which would be matched by employers,” she said.
Gerry O’Dwyer, senior employer relations advisor at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “We need to understand the impact of people working longer.
“Our clear position has been against the linking of the state pension age with the occupational pension age, as we don’t believe the nature of general nursing can sustain people working full-time at that age.”
A DH spokesman said discussions on the scope of the review were on-going and the group’s first meeting was expected in the autumn.
He said: “The review will look at evidence on the impact of working longer in terms of health and wellbeing and service delivery, good employment practice and development of new and longer career pathways as well as considering a more strategic and flexible approach to reward.”
He added: “This could include employer funded contribution rates to offset the cost of early retirement or flexibility for frontline staff to take on alternative roles to allow them to work to their pension age if they want.”
As well as working for longer, nurses will also have to contribute more for their pension under the government’s new scheme. Contribution rates are set to rise by an average of 3.2% over three years from April 2012. The final pension will be based on an NHS career average salary.
Those within 10 years of retirement in April 2012 will not see any change to their benefits.
Neither Unison nor the Royal College of Nursing have formally accepted or rejected the proposals, following inconclusive membership ballots.
The British Medical Association, which rejected the deal, held a national day of action on 21 June. It has delayed taking further industrial action, but has said it will continue to fight for a fairer deal for its members.