An NHS trust's decision to bring back hospital staff parking charges has been criticised by unions.

The County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust is to end the free parking for staff next month.

The parking charges - branded a "stealth tax" - were temporarily suspended in March 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Some NHS trusts brought back the staff charges in April this year, when they were reintroduced nationally as the government ended its support for free parking.

The County Durham and Darlington trust held off at that point and staff parking remained free, though visitors had to pay from March.

But the staff charges will return on October 1.

A spokesperson for County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Nationally, the NHS announced that hospital car park charges for staff should be reintroduced from April 1, 2022, having been paused for both staff and visitors since the early part of the pandemic.

"As a trust, we have taken the time to review all of our options acknowledging that this is a subject which impacts on so many; we are committed to re-introducing car parking charges in a way that causes the least disruption.

"In line with regional trusts it has been agreed that staff car parking charges will recommence from October 1, 2022 at the same rate as 2019/2020. Visitor parking charges recommenced in March 2022.”

Alex Wilson, national officer for Yorkshire and North East England for hospital doctors' union the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, said: “The reintroduction of hospital parking charges for staff imposes a stealth tax on hard-working NHS employees just for turning up for their shift.

"It comes at a time when heating and eating are a financial challenge for many hospital workers and follows years of below-inflation pay awards.

"This additional pressure will fall on people who are already suffering burnout and exhaustion due to their dedication throughout the many challenges which the NHS has faced and continues to face.

“There is a responsibility for employers to ensure the safety of their employees, so when they must pay to park in a safe place when attending anti-social shifts this shows the true value placed on NHS staff.

“This decision makes a mockery of the daily applause and supposed appreciation of hardworking NHS staff who have put themselves in harm’s way for the good of the country.”

UNISON northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: “With the cost of petrol, food and energy all going through the roof and a government committed to keeping NHS wages down, the last thing health workers need is a new charge on coming to work.

“Those already on the brink of leaving the NHS may well see this as the final straw and head for the exit, just as the service needs experienced staff the most. 

"The continuation of free parking and an inflation-busting pay rise is vital to stop more staff leaving NHS jobs this year.

“The trust should reconsider these parking charges. It’s not right to charge healthcare staff for coming to work.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Cllr Kevin Nicholson. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Kevin Nicholson. Picture: Northern Echo.

Councillor Kevin Nicholson, Darlington Borough Council's cabinet member for health and housing, suggest trust leaders think "more creatively" about how to help staff.

He said: “I know how well the leadership team at County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust have supported their employees over the past few years.

“The public rightly finds it difficult to understand that employees of such a valued public service should have to pay to park at their workplace.

“I’m sure that the leadership team, given their extensive experience in managing their local budgets well, can think more creatively about how to support frontline staff during these increasingly challenging times.”

The North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust resumed charging for staff car parking in July.

A 3% pay rise for NHS staff, recognised for their contribution during the "unprecedented year" of the pandemic, was announced in July.