The government's refusal to fund a national pay deal for the millennium holiday is ruining the party for human resources managers. Barbara Millar reports

Managers and unions are still reeling from the announcement that there will be no national deal on pay for staff working over the millennium weekend.

Many trusts are angry because they halted local talks on millennium pay when they were led to believe there would be a national agreement. Some now say it could be cheaper for trusts to negotiate local deals, after all.

The Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel is warning that it could lead to 'a serious confrontation' with staff.

But the decision, announced by NHS head of pay Aileen Simpkins at a human resources conference in Birmingham, is 'good news' for Frimley Park Hospitals trust human resources director Janet King.

'The staff claim was for£500 for working on millennium eve and I don't know of any trust which would have been able to settle at this sort of level,' she says.

Negotiations put on hold in anticipation of a national deal will now reopen. Ms King says any settlement will need to be 'modest', and go across the board.

'I am determined there will be one rate for everyone, whether cleaner or consultant,' she says.

Local human resources directors met a few months ago and agreed an 'absolute maximum' figure of£150 extra per shift, she adds. 'But we are looking at settling well below this. We have just not got the money.'

Association of Human Resource Management president Ian Stone says his members would have preferred a national agreement. 'It seems a shame that each trust is going to have to arrive separately at a settlement,' he says. 'It has also to be done quickly - we have already lost three months waiting to see if there would be a national deal. A national agreement, nationally funded, would have been more helpful.

'We will now go back to staff side with our proposals,' he says. 'Our view, however, is that excessive payments would be inappropriate and against the health service culture. We will be looking for a modest payment - even£50 per shift on top of normal pay would cost us an extra£750,000.'

The trust will also look at premium payments for staff who need to stay sober over the weekend because they are on standby, and for people like information technology staff who normally work Monday to Friday but may need to come in over the weekend when things go wrong.

Mr Stone adds: 'I am worried that people may try to solve their staffing problems by pouring money at it. But I do not think we should be paying sums out of proportion with what we would normally pay. It would be wrong - and I think most of our staff are sensible and understand that.'

John Langran, senior HR adviser with NHS-owned agency NHSP, was sitting on the podium when Ms Simpkins made her announcement and confesses he was 'very surprised'. He says: 'I understand it comes directly from the government's health team who believe people in the caring professions should be driven by professional issues, rather than money.'

Mr Langran also believes that the 'imminent' guidance on how trusts should cope with millennium pay claims will aim to discourage trusts from making any local offers.

That will not be tolerated by staff, according to APAP spokesman Jonathan Fox.

'There is a market out there,' he says, 'and we are talking about£100 an hour for some people to work over the millennium period. If ambulance staff are not going to be rewarded for what is likely to be the busiest period in our history and for having the commitment to work during a period none of us will see again, we are heading for a serious confrontational situation.'

Unison deputy head of health Paul Marks says: 'If people on call-out are expected to standby for as little as£50 for the night, it really isn't much of an incentive.'

Royal College of Nursing senior employment relations officer John Humphreys says that nurses and other health service staff 'should be recognised, in a proper way, through a national agreement'.

He adds: 'A great deal of work is being done to ensure there is proper service provision around the millennium. Having to negotiate hundreds of local pay agreements on top means lots of work for trade unions and employers. We still hope there can be a national agreement on pay for NHS and other public sector staff.'

The General Whitley Council staff side is compiling a survey of pay offers already being negotiated around the country. Mr Marks says: 'We want to look at what we have now as a basis for going forward.'

He says triple-time rates have already been offered by some trusts, including Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare trust.

Personnel manager Jim Robson confirms that staff were asked to volunteer to work over the millennium period, with the incentive of three times basic pay for millennium eve and double time for the following 24 hours.

'Staff had until 31 March to volunteer and we have secured sufficient numbers in most areas to meet our needs,' he says.

The estimated cost is around£40,000. Mr Robson adds: 'We wanted to get our staffing sorted out at the earliest possible stage. We offered an incentive so that staff would commit themselves to work right at the beginning of the year - and it has worked.'