National Health Service staff are quitting their pension scheme at almost five times the rate of other public sector workers as they struggle with rising living costs and tax changes, according to figures that have sparked calls for urgent action by authorities.

The NHS scheme, one of the largest in the UK with 3m members, promises savers a guaranteed pension based on salary and length of service — a type of retirement benefit now rarely offered to workers in the private sector.

But in spite of this, a quarter of a million NHS workers quit saving into the plan between 2015 and 2017, according to a recent report by the Health Service Journal.

Now, separate analysis suggests that opt-outs from the NHS pension scheme are significantly higher than other public sector defined-benefit retirement plans.

Royal London, a pension provider, has calculated the opt-out, or quit, rate for the NHS scheme is about 16 per cent, based on the 245,561 people who stopped saving into it between 2015 and 2017.

This compares with an opt-out rate for other schemes of 3.4 per cent for teachers, 1.45 per cent for the civil service and 0.04 per cent for the armed forces, according to data obtained by Royal London through freedom of information requests.

“The NHS as an employer needs to take urgent action to tackle this epidemic of pension opt-outs,” said Steve Webb, director of policy at Royal London.

“All public sector workers have faced a squeeze on their take-home pay in recent years, but it is in the NHS where this has translated into shockingly high numbers of people leaving the pension scheme.”

The Financial Times has reported that young doctors were quitting the NHS scheme because they could not afford mandatory contributions amounting to about 7 per cent to 9 per cent of their salary.

The British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, has also raised concerns that its members were quitting the pension scheme, or changing their working patterns, because successive cuts to pensions tax relief were exposing them to hefty charges.

NHS Employers, the employers’ organisation for the health service in England, said opt-out figures on their own “don’t necessarily give the full picture” of how membership levels across the pension scheme were shifting.

“But concern is mounting that some colleagues are planning to leave the scheme, especially senior clinical staff,” said Danny Mortimer, NHS Employers’ chief executive. “This is in light of the annual and lifetime tax changes of recent years, and the general cost of living pressures felt across the UK workforce.”

Mr Mortimer said the NHS needed “more flexibility in the pension scheme so that staff could manage their pension growth differently to reflect and support their own needs and priorities”.

The Pensions Regulator, which oversees public and private sector workplace pensions, said the NHS opt-out rate was a matter for employers and the scheme. “We’d encourage staff to get to know their pension and appreciate the benefits and to continue saving,” it added.

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