Hospitals could face a staffing crisis over the millennium weekend as a result of the government's decision to turn down a national deal on premium pay.

The news slipped out at the first NHS Executive national human resources conference when head of NHS pay Aileen Simpkins told a workshop that there will be no national deal on pay for staff working over that weekend.

Unison wanted a flat rate of£500 for all NHS staff except doctors for working on millennium eve and£250 for working the first shift on 1 January. That was flatly rejected last week by management-side secretary Patricia Saunders.

But Ms Simpkins' announcement, at a workshop attended by 200 managers and a sprinkling of health union representatives, caused consternation. MSF health secretary Roger Kline warned that unions would be in 'no hurry to complete negotiations until about December 15' and managers would have to 'crawl on their hands and knees' to get enough staff.

Without a national agreement, all trusts will be expected to negotiate local deals with staff to ensure that essential hospital services will continue.

Unison head of health Bob Abberley warned that a 'profusion of local deals' would mean trusts will poach staff from each other.

Ms Simpkins told the HR workshop: 'We are not talking about a national deal' and referred to forthcoming guidance on how trusts are expected to cope with claims for extra pay over the millennium weekend. HSJ understands that a circular will be issued soon. Ms Simpkins said there would be a 'clear message from the centre' to emphasise the value of the public service ethos.

HR managers and chief executives greeted her announcement with cries of: 'Where are we going to find the money?' One said: 'It is too late to say what you are saying to us now. The expectation is there now that there would be a national arrangement.'

The manner of the announcement was strongly criticised by Royal College of Nursing senior labour relations officer Josie Urwin. She pointed out that a meeting scheduled to respond to the staff-side claim had been cancelled, while Ms Simpkins' announcement was made directly to HR directors.

Nottingham City Hospital trust HR director Ray Mailly said he shared the frustration of managers that it had taken so long to decide. A 'crescendo of concern' had built up as the private sector and agencies agreed deals well over normal bank holiday rates.

Many trusts are already negotiating deals offering a premium on top of normal bank holiday rates, plus time off in lieu and enhanced on-call payments, according to NHS Confederation policy director Tim Jones. He told HSJ that he was 'gratified by the news' because a national deal was the least preferred option when trusts were surveyed on the issue last year.

See comment, page 13.