NHS consultants are not demanding a 35% pay rise

26 July 2023
What was claimed

Striking NHS consultants are demanding a 35% pay rise.

Our verdict

The British Medical Association has confirmed that it is seeking an above inflation pay rise, but not necessarily 35%.

There appears to be confusion in the media about the pay demands of NHS England consultants during the recent strikes.

Many media outlets—including the Mail, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun, Express and Times, and TalkTV and the Sky News website—have reported that meeting consultants’ demands would amount to a pay rise of 35%. 

This appears to be a misunderstanding of a claim by the British Medical Association (BMA), the union that represents the striking consultants, that the real-terms take-home pay of consultants fell by 35% between 2008/9 and 2021/22 (although the full restoration of a fall of 35% would amount to a rise of 54%).

Other outlets such as the Guardian don’t mention a specific figure for the proposed rise, but say that consultants are seeking “full pay restoration” to the level of pay that they had in 2008/09. Responding to Full Fact, the paper told us that it was quoting a statement from the BMA.

The BMA told Full Fact that the consultants’ strikes are not a campaign for full restoration, and said it has asked the government for an uplift above inflation at the time.

A BMA spokesperson told us: “The consultants’ committee is campaigning for at least an inflationary uplift as of March 2023… For absolute clarity the BMA’s consultants’ committee is not asking for either a 35% or 54% uplift.”

It is also asking for reform to the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration, which advises the government on consultants' and other doctors’ pay. 

We’ve seen many misleading claims about pay during recent industrial disputes, including claims about junior doctors’ pay and pay demands, how much it would cost to raise nurses’ pay and how much their pay is rising. We’ve also fact checked claims about the pay of rail workers.

It’s essential that all sides in the debate, and the media, use accurate information when talking about pay, with all necessary context and caveats, so that the public can understand the facts about what people earn, what unions are asking for, and how much a pay rise might cost.

This article is about NHS England only, which is the part of the NHS that the UK government controls.

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What do consultants want?

According to analysis by the BMA, when inflation is taken into account, the take-home pay of NHS consultants lost 35% of its value between 2008/09 and 2021/22.

This analysis uses the RPI measure of inflation, which has been criticised by some economic experts, who suggest it may not lead to accurate figures. However, it is supported by many unions, and some other experts have said that alternative measures have weaknesses when it comes to measuring consumer price inflation.

The Nuffield Trust, a health think tank, used the different CPI measure of inflation to calculate changes in the value of pay in the NHS. Using this measure it estimated that consultants saw a 14.5% fall in gross pay between 2010/11 and 2022/23.

Separately, the BMA analysis only considers the changing value of consultants’ pay as far as 2021/22, so it does not reflect the changes in the most recent pay awards.

It also only reflects pay from NHS work, not private earnings.

What is ‘pay restoration’?

In its campaign on junior doctors’ pay, the BMA is asking for full pay restoration to 2008/09 levels. It estimates using RPI inflation measures that the value of junior doctors’ pay was eroded by 26% up to 2021/22, and would therefore need to rise by 35% above where it was 2021/22 to be restored (although there has been more inflation and a pay uplift since these demands were announced). 

We have written before about confusion in the media over these figures, which may have begun in a common misconception about percentages.

Put simply, subtracting one number from another represents a smaller percentage fall than the rise would be if you added it back again. So taking 50 away from 100 amounts to halving it (a 50% fall), but adding 50 back to 50 means doubling (a 100% rise).

This might explain the common claim in relation to the consultants’ campaign that they are demanding a “35% rise”. For instance, an article on the Sky News website says the BMA “called for a 35% pay increase as it claims that it is the figure take-home pay has declined by over the last 15 years”.

The coincidental fact that junior doctors are asking for a 35% pay rise may also have caused confusion.

In a statement on its website that seems to relate to both its junior doctors’ and consultants’ campaigns, the BMA says it “will continue to fight for the full restoration of pay lost since 2008”, which may have led some media outlets to believe that it is demanding full pay restoration for consultants. 

However, the BMA has told us that this is not the case. And its website also says that “[fixing consultants’ pay] should begin with an agreement to provide an above inflationary pay award for 2023-24”.

As we’ve said, the BMA is also campaigning for the pay review body that advises the government on doctors’ pay to be reformed.

Full Fact approached all the media outlets mentioned in this article for comment.

Image courtesy of Olga Guryanova

Update 28 July 2023

We have updated this article to reflect the fact some media outlets reported consultants were seeking a pay increase of 35% while others reported they were seeking “full pay restoration”.

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted all of the media outlets mentioned in our fact check to request corrections.

The Mirror, Sky News and the Daily Express have amended their articles and added footnotes.

The Sun rejected any suggestion its article was incorrect at time of publication, but has added a footnote to its article to make clear what the BMA's current position on this is. 

The Guardian told us it is satisfied with the wording of its article and notes that it is fair to report that the BMA's long-term goal for NHS consultants is full pay restoration. 

The other outlets did not respond. 

We have also written to the BMA to ask them to ensure any future statements on this subject are clear.

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