• Students on WATS courses have previously been eligible for tax exemptions
  • But HMRC plans to withdraw relief from September

A government decision to cut tax relief for NHS staff on widening access to training schemes could have a ‘significant’ negative impact, HSJ has been warned.

Providers could previously apply for tax exemptions for students on the WATS courses, which include district nursing, nursing associate, and health visiting. However, according to HM Revenue and Customs guidance, from 1 September 2019, tax and national insurance contributions will now be due on payments made to NHS employees on such courses. 

Rachel Doubleday, course leader for the specialist practice qualification district nursing course at Teeside University, told HSJ students’ decisions to apply for the district nursing course were based on an assumption they would get tax relief.

She said these students were often ineligible for other salary uplifts – for example, they did not receive unsocial hours payments because the placements are not scheduled over weekends. “These factors in conjunction with the impact of the withdrawal of tax relief could have a significant cumulative effect,” she said. 

She added yet another reduction to students’ income might pressure them into taking extra shifts, which might “impact their ability to give their all to their course”.

Although Ms Doubleday said the viability of university courses appeared to not yet be affected by the tax relief cuts, she added this may be because the news of the withdrawal came after trusts had completed their interview processes and students had been offered places.

“We have a close partnership with the local NHS trusts and because of this are aware that some trusts are already facing challenges in recruiting to district nurse posts as there are not enough people out there with the qualifications required before the changes to the tax relief system,” she said.

Health Education England declined to comment and the Department of Health and Social Care did not respond when asked for comment by HSJ.

According to figures published by NHS Digital, the number of district nurses working in the NHS has dropped by 40 per cent since 2010.

National funding for the qualification is due to end this year. From 2020-21, a two-year course will be funded through the apprenticeship levy, but concerns have been raised this could leave a gap in 2021 with no new district nurses qualifying.

Update: This story was updated at 15:15 on 6 August to reflect the DHSC’s failure to comment.