Health secretary Frank Dobson has written to health authority and trust chairs, urging them to give senior managers the same pay award as other NHS staff.

The move came as the government signalled that this year's pay awards, ranging from 3.8 per cent for nurses and most other NHS staff, to 5.2 per cent for GPs, will be fully funded. But, as expected, this is to be done by phasing in the awards, with 2 per cent paid in April and the remainder on

1 December.

The phasing was condemned by health unions but greeted with relief by managers' leaders.

NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton said: 'There is 2.7 per cent in the system, which is enough to meet the award. But there is nothing left over and I am very worried about next year.'

Mr Thornton said senior managers would be 'delighted at the prospect that their pay rise may be as generous as doctors' and nurses' because their pay had not kept pace with those groups. He suspected Mr Dobson was aiming at high-profile chief executives, whose pay had made headlines, rather than the majority still covered by national pay and conditions.

Mr Dobson's bid for parity for senior managers is part of his aim to be fair to all NHS staff. He accepts that the government cannot enforce awards for managers not covered by national terms, but has made it clear that he expects trusts and HAs to stick to the principle that NHS staff should 'share the pain'.

The Institute of Health Services Management warned that the awards would stretch the NHS purse strings to breaking point.

Director Karen Caines said: 'NHS staff do a difficult job and should enjoy suitable rewards - and that includes managers. But the government must take note of the problems the NHS faces making the books balance under the pressure of patient demands.'

The Community Practitioners and Health Visitors' Association warned that paying doctors more than nurses and professions allied to medicine would widen the gap and provide more scope for equal pay claims.

Labour relations director Roger Kline said he was 'incredulous' that doctors had once again been given higher awards. 'We are already preparing a number of equal pay claims and this should make our job easier. Doctors' pay will become the standard for comparisons for obvious reasons - it is still a male-dominated profession.'

Unison's deputy head of health, Malcolm Wing, said he was 'bitterly disappointed' at the decision to stage the awards - which effectively amounted to a windfall tax on nurses' pay: 'The average staff nurse is going to lose pounds5 a week for the next eight months so that the chancellor can stick to the previous government's spending limits,' he said.

But Royal College of Nursing general secretary Christine Hancock said it was a 'fair but not generous award'. Although 'very disappointed' at the phasing of the award, she said there were opportunities for senior clinical nurses to end up earning more than doctors.

Ms Hancock also welcomed the 'strong messages' in the pay review body report acknowledging the pressures on nurses and their increased workload. The award 'will go some way towards addressing that, but not far enough', she said.

Shadow health secretary John Maples said Labour had in the past criticised staging, and accused the party of 'breathtaking hypocrisy'.

See News Focus, page 11.