Clinical excellence awards paid to medical consultants by trusts will be almost halved under draft Department of Health guidance.

The BMA has written a strongly worded letter to health secretary Andrew Lansley, claiming the guidance will result in trusts paying out an average £591 per consultant each year - a drop of 43 per cent compared with present payouts.

As there are around 37,000 eligible consultants, this would equate to an annual saving across all trusts of around £15.5m.

Overall in 2009-10, the NHS paid around £40m worth of local awards to consultants, which are subject to reviews every five years, and are consolidated in pay and pension entitlements.

In a letter to BMA members, consultants committee chair Mark Porter wrote: “We would like to assure you that we are working to oppose this suggested change.

“We have written to the secretary of state for health, Andrew Lansley, to make our objection clear and we are exploring the legal position.”

DH guidance states trusts must pay out the minimal equivalent of £1,035 in clinical excellence awards for each eligible consultant.

However, according to the BMA, the DH’s advisory committee on clinical excellence awards has proposed to reduce this to the equivalent of £591 per eligible consultant.

That is based on a single award unit being valued at £2,957. Trusts must at present make 0.35 awards per eligible consultant but that will drop to 0.2 per consultant if proposed changes go ahead.

It is up to trusts to determine how many individual awards they make and the value of each.

The guidance pre-empts a review into clinical excellence awards announced by Mr Lansley in August, due to report next July.

Mr Porter told HSJ the rewards encouraged high-flying consultants to work in the NHS rather than in the private sector.

The awards are also handed out on a national basis, with new awards normally replacing those no longer held by people who retire or die. This year consultants were paid 317 national awards - around half that of the previous year - worth up to £75,796 each.

NHS Employers head of medical pay and workforce Bill McMillan said: “NHS organisations will believe a reduction in the funds available for awards is appropriate given the current financial challenges facing the NHS.”