Proudly smiling on graduation day at The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham in 1984, these four friends had their whole nursing careers ahead of them.
Now, after serving the public for four decades, they have reached retirement age and can think about drawing on their hard-earned NHS pensions.
But unlike her colleagues in the photograph, Debbie McGinty (far left) has had to keep working because she was excluded from the NHS pension scheme when she went into practice nursing.
High hopes: Newly qualified nurses, from left, Debbie McGinty, Alison, Claire and Helen together after graduating in 1984
Practice nurses are at the forefront of the UK’s world-beating vaccination drive to protect the nation from coronavirus. They have gone beyond the call of duty to help inject more than 18 million of us and return the country to health.
Yet thousands of GP nurses are facing a poorer retirement than their NHS colleagues because they were excluded from the pension scheme for years.
Money Mail is calling for a fairer pension deal for these nurses, who missed out on as much as £100,000 in retirement because they were considered privately employed by GPs.
Many NHS nurses agreed to take up new positions in local health centres in the late 1980s and early 1990s – but because they were then working for GPs, they had to drop out of the NHS pension scheme.
And while GPs themselves were allowed to keep paying into the scheme, practice nurses were not allowed back in until 1997. By then, many had missed out on more than ten years’ investment in their retirement fund.
Campaigners say the vital role of practice nurses in the pandemic has reignited the sense of injustice.
Exposed: Money Mail’s first headline on nurse pensions inequality, June 2019
Debbie, who now lives in Coventry, was excluded from contributing to the NHS scheme for seven years after starting work as a practice nurse in 1990.
As a result, not only does she have a smaller retirement fund than her friends, but she couldn’t retire at 55 last year because she didn’t pay into the pension scheme for more than five years.
Debbie, who had wanted to take her pension and help care for her elderly parents, says: ‘I felt completely naive and devastated that, after dedicating my whole working life to caring for others in an NHS role, this was how I was treated.
‘My dear friends who I had trained with – but who didn’t go into practice nursing until later – are now enjoying the benefits of retirement, or taking their pension and continuing to work in the NHS. I can’t help but feel discriminated against.’
Debbie’s friend Alison, 55, (second left) was able to retire with her pension last year after a career as a palliative nurse.
She says: ‘If you are caring for NHS patients, you should have been allowed to stay in the NHS scheme. It is grossly unfair that Debbie wasn’t allowed to do that at the time.’
Meanwhile, Claire (second right) also worked as a practice nurse but started in 1995, so was still able to access her pension at 55.
She says: ‘Debbie has given as much as I have to the NHS, so why should she be treated any differently?’
Helen, 55, took her pension last September but still works part-time in Coventry.
Front line: Practice nurses are now at the forefront of the UK’s world-beating vaccination drive to protect the nation from coronavirus
She switched to practice nursing in 1996 and says: ‘It wasn’t made clear to Debbie and many others at the time she joined general practice that it wouldn’t be classed as the NHS in terms of pension contributions.’
We launched our Money Mail campaign for practice nurses more than 18 months ago and it received support from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, says: ‘Nurses working in general practice are the bedrock of health and care.
‘Now the Covid-19 vaccination programme is being rolled out, they are leading the way again in setting up and running vaccination clinics.’
Joanne Hamilton, 55, missed out on eight years in the scheme after signing up to be one of the first practice nurses in Dudley, in the West Midlands.
The married grandmother, who is now helping to vaccinate vulnerable NHS patients in their homes, says: ‘Practice nurses are key to the delivery of this vaccine but we were denied those years of paying into a pension that GPs could. It is just so unfair.’
S ome practice nurses have told Money Mail they were never informed that they would be excluded from the NHS pension scheme, while others said they didn’t realise the implications.
Jane Hughes, 64, started work as a practice nurse in Dudley in 1991 after working as district nurse for 15 years.
She has been a nurse for nearly 48 years but, because she was barred from the NHS scheme for six years, she has had to keep working to make up her pension shortfall.
The married mum-of-one has vaccinated hundreds of patients this year. She says: ‘I love what I do — but if I had stayed in a hospital or as a district nurse, I would have a bigger pension. ‘
A Department of Health spokesman says: ‘We are thankful for the vital role NHS staff are playing in the coronavirus vaccination programme.
‘In recognition of their crucial role assisting general practitioners, more than 50,000 GP practice staff were admitted into the NHS Pension Scheme in 1997.
‘To make sure pension contribution rates for existing members of the NHS scheme are protected, it is not possible to allow these staff to backdate their pension.’