The health chief of a cash-strapped primary care trust has defended the high salaries paid out to several top employees.

Andrew Pike, the chief executive of NHS South West Essex, has assured the public drastic action is being taken to save money in light of the trust’s £52million deficit.

He said pay had now been frozen in light of the economic climate.

He was speaking after the Echo revealed yesterday several executives and directors at the trust earned more than £100,000 last year and some were awarded hefty pay rises.

Staff lower down the chain, who are facing redundancies after the trust announced at least 224 job cuts are looming, slated the high salary bands.

Unison regional leader Nick Bradley also labelled them “too excessive.”

However, Mr Pike said experienced staff were needed. He said: “Senior staff bring with them expertise and knowledge and have direct accountability for the performance of the organisation and the care of our patients.

“However, I totally understand the concern among staff about high levels of pay at such a difficult time.”

He confirmed the trust paid a consultancy firm £145,000 over a six month period to fill a managing director’s post. He added: “The primary care trust has a contract with a consultancy to provide management support for the post of managing director of NHS South West Essex Community Services.

“As reported in the annual report 2009/10, the primary care trust paid this consultancy £145,000 between September 2009 and March 2010.

“The contract with the consultancy is for a defined period of time, which comes to a close no later than March 31, 2011, with the completion of transforming community services.”

Mr Pike said the post, which is now held by Dr Attila Vegh, was necessary.

“The complexity, scope and pace of this task has been significant,” he said.

“NHS South West Essex will be one of the first primary care trusts in the country to move its community services to a new separate organisation by next spring.

“This has meant it needed to bring in additional management support to achieve this.”

He also defended trust chairman Derek Morrison receiving a salary of £35,000 to £40,000 for a part time post, saying this was in line with other trusts and was set nationally.

As for pay rises he stressed: “No director at NHS South West Essex received a 10 per cent pay rise that year. In 2009/10, there was a one per cent pay award for senior managers set by the NHS. As a result this may have moved staff from one salary band to another.”

He added: “NHS South West Essex now shares a chief executive with NHS South East Essex – halving the costs associated with this post.

“We also share the post of Director of Public Health.

“All pay has been frozen for all directors this year in line with the rest of the NHS.”