The news that there will be no national deal on pay to cover the millennium new year may come as a shock (see news, pages 2-3). But it really should not. Though guidance issued by the NHS Executive last December had nothing to say on pay, the silence itself should have been ominous enough.

What is surprising is that the Executive - and, presumably, ministers - think it a good idea to throw trusts individually into the jaws of the free labour market at its most rapacious. The NHS was never going to do well from a desperate scramble for staff, but with competition from agencies, the hospitality industry and many other sectors for whom this extended bank holiday weekend means huge potential profits, it is plain daft for the centre to abdicate responsibility.

Given the government's stated intention of returning to a core national system of pay determination overall, and its record in opposition of ridiculing attempts by its predecessor to introduce local pay in the first place, it is not even clear why it should want to do so. There is neither financial nor ideological justification for its stance - and the only possible explanation is that it would rather the blame lay with managers than ministers. Health secretary Frank Dobson and his colleagues should be careful not to underestimate the toll taken on managers by what even Executive human resources director Hugh Taylor admits is coming to look like 'initiative-itis' (see news focus, pages 10-11). Adding millennium pay to the list of priorities simply adds to the sense of an impossible task.

There is, of course, a great deal that trusts can do to minimise the damage - and the Executive is promising guidance shortly, which will presumably urge trusts to band together so that local health economies can attempt to devise a common line rather than competing with each other. But the suggestion put forward at last week's Executive-sponsored HR conference that employers should attempt to appeal to the public service ethos beggars belief. Staff organisations can be expected to treat it with the contempt it deserves, and management negotiators would do well to exercise that sort of pressure with extreme caution.