DOCTORS working out-of-hours over the festive season could make as much as £1,600 for a shift as the NHS bumps up pay rates to make sure vital cover is available across Scotland, figures show.
GPs can earn more than £200 an hour working for the out-of-hours service when practices are closed over Christmas and New Year.
Rates of pay have increased in recent years to attract doctors to work the unsociable shifts. Three years ago the highest hourly rate offered by a health board was £145 – it is now £202.
The figures come after concerns this summer over many areas struggling to attract doctors to work out-of-hours.
Doctors’ leaders said the higher rates of pay were necessary to make sure GPs were attracted to fill the shifts.
Patients’ campaigners said they accepted that the shifts had to be filled but urged the NHS to look at how it might manage the service next year to reduce costs.
For out-of-hours shifts at evenings and weekends at other times of year, doctors can generally expect to earn between £50 and £100 per hour. Over Christmas these rates double in many areas.
Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show wide variations between boards in what was offered.
The highest rate is paid by NHS Ayrshire and Arran at £202.76 per hour. This was followed by £180 per hour in NHS Lothian, which in 2010 had the highest pay rate of all boards at £145.
At the other end of the scale, boards including Dumfries and Galloway and Forth Valley offered rates of around £100 an hour over Christmas, while in Shetland it was £64.
The amount paid varies depending on the time of day worked, with the highest rates for working overnight on Christmas Day.
Most boards only pay the enhanced rates over the public holidays, with normal rates applying on other days during the festive fortnight.
But with shifts of between five and eight hours on average, medics willing to work for just a few days over Christmas and New Year could earn many thousands of pounds.
Earlier this year, Scotland on Sunday reported how many boards were struggling to fill their out-of-hours rotas during the summer months as doctors railed against static pay rates and high stress levels which offered little incentive for them to work the unsociable hours.
In response, some areas increased pay rates to make sure cover was available.
This Christmas, most boards have said they are close to covering their festive shifts.
However, some reported having some still to fill, including 12 per cent of festive shifts in NHS Ayrshire and Arran and 15 per cent in Lanarkshire.
Dr Andrew Buist, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s Scottish GPs committee, said boards appeared to be on track to fill their shifts.
He defended the higher rates of pay, saying that they were needed to encourage doctors to work at these times of year.
“Some of the rates had not increased since 2004, and I think there was recognition that after nine years it was becoming a factor in the difficulty they were having in recruiting to the shifts,” he said.
“If doctors are prepared to give up what is a special time of year for getting together with your family then they are welcome to reap the rewards from that.
“It can’t be much fun being in any situation like that for a prolonged period over the Christmas and New Year holidays.”
Buist said more boards may have to consider increasing pay rates in the longer term to make sure they continue to attract staff to the out-of-hours shifts.
Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients Association, said the hourly rates being paid to doctors in some areas were higher than some people could expect to earn in a week.“It is very important that we do cover these shifts, and if we are held to ransom we can’t do anything about it. We need them,” she said.
“But we should also be looking into it for next year and saying this is costing us a lot of money and is there some other way that we could be doing this?”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Sessional rates for out-of-hours GPs are a matter for NHS boards. All boards are expected to take appropriate action to ensure safe and effective delivery of care in this peak period.”