Trusts say it will be business as usual on millennium eve, but paying up to 10 times normal rates may be the only way to guarantee staffing levels.

The first that Janet King's partner will know about where he is going to spend millennium eve is when he picks up this week's HSJ.

She hasn't had the heart to tell him yet, but as director of human resources at Frimley Park Hospitals trust, Ms King will spend 31 December 1999 with the other directors, key staff, their partners, guests and a few others at a modest celebration in the hospital's atrium.

The trust is looking at what staff and skill-mix will be needed to cover the period. 'In some areas we may need fewer staff as we will stop doing elective work on 21 December,' says Ms King.

'But in other areas we will need fuller cover.

'Our biggest problem is that turnover in some staff groups is as high as 30 per cent, so by next December there could be many new members of staff.'

As a precaution, all new staff contracts will contain a statement that they may need to work over this period.

Staff who work over the millennium eve at Nottingham City Hospital trust can look forward to nothing in terms of a knees-up. 'There will definitely be no celebrations,' says Steve Pugh, the trust's deputy HR director.

'For those who have to come to work, we will offer extra remuneration and days off in lieu.'

At present, the trust is hoping there will be a Nottingham-wide strategy on pay. 'We are talking to our colleagues in the other trusts,' says Mr Pugh.

The trust may consider doubling the normal rates, he adds.

So far, the General Whitley Council staff side has not claimed for premium payments for the millennium bank holiday, and Paul Marks, deputy head of health with Unison, says managers are not keen on a national agreement.

'We will, however, press for a national claim - if only to establish that it would not be a breach of conditions if people paid above what the handbook says in these one-off conditions.'

Some local claims have gone in - Unison and the Association of Professional Ambulance Person-nel have asked Royal Berkshire Ambulance trust for four times the normal pay rate for the 24 hours from 6pm on 31 December.

HR director Hugh Chapman says the trust wants to 'evaluate the claim', but adds that he regards it as 'a one-off response to a unique situation'.

APAP spokesman Jonathan Fox says the union wants to set the ground rules. 'The only way to guarantee that staff will be in, short of brandishing a stick, is to ensure that they are rewarded.'

A circular issued this month by NHS Executive HR director Hugh Taylor to health authority and trust chief executives, and to directors of social services, calls for more emphasis on human resource issues (see box).

Mr Taylor says he wants to see closer inter-agency working and dialogue between trusts, HAs and social services. 'It is essential that NHS trusts should not enter into auctions with each other over agency cover,' he says.

But the circular does not address the thorny issue of remuneration for those who have to work over the critical period.

Ian Stone, personnel director at United Bristol Healthcare trust and president of the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management, is not happy. 'We had wanted guidance on this specific issue,' he says.

'There are rumours that some agencies are talking about paying 10 times the rate and certainly three times the rate seems likely.

'Staff could resign, go and work for an agency over the new year and then come back to us, knowing we will need them because it is hard to recruit staff.'

Josie Irwin, national officer with the Royal College of Nursing, would like to see a properly negotiated rate - paid to nurses on duty and on call - that applies right across the board.

'We will be looking for a sensible payment, she says. 'But, more important than the level of remuneration is that it should apply across the board.'

Basildon and Thurrock General Hospitals trust hopes to make the millennium bank holiday as normal a working period as possible, says HR director John Adsett.

'We are talking to our neighbouring trusts to see what they are doing in terms of rostering staff and remuneration.'

But there could be a lot of pressure on the trust as it is the fourth in line hospital from the Millennium Dome, he adds.See Feature, pages 24-26.