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£200m bill for agency doctors and nurses

Locum doctors have cost the north's health service £150m in five years. Picture posed.
Seanín Graham

MORE than £200 million has been spent on hiring private agency doctors and nurses over the past five years due to chronic staff shortages across Northern Ireland hospitals.

The bill exposes the five health trusts' continuing reliance on costly recruitment agencies at a time of spiralling waiting lists - with a £150m bill for locum doctors alone.

Some stand-in consultants can earn three times that of a NHS staff doctor.

The biggest spend was in the Belfast health trust - the north's biggest health trust - at almost £48m. However, this figure excludes the wages spent on in-house locums already on the payroll.

Under the current system, health trusts have contracts with a number of recruitment firms with agreed pay rates. However, they can also negotiate additional rates with private agencies.

The figures come three years after a Stormont watchdog report warned that recruitment firms had the north’s health service "over a barrel".

The Public Accounts Committee accused the firms of "creaming off substantial profits at the taxpayer’s expense by dictating inflated rates of pay for covering shifts".

Dr George O’Neill, a Belfast GP, said the massive bill was an indictment of the current hospital system, which has "too few doctors on too many sites".

"At the moment we have 10 acute hospital sites in Northern Ireland with many depending on locums to staff them," he said.

"This inflated spend merely reflects the inability of decision makers to reduce our number of hospitals to three or four - until someone grasps the nettle and makes that decision our skilled consultant cover will become diluted.

"Our system is obsolete and not fit for purpose."

The figures come five months after the Irish News revealed that £50m has been spent on hiring agency nurses since 2010 due to major gaps in rotas.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the move was a "deliberate" one to reduce flexibility in nursing teams to try "balance the books" in health trusts.

"Financial management is dictating how our nurses are employed and deployed in hospital wards and the community," she said.

"Health trusts are turning to agency staff as we know that demand for bank nurses is outstripping supply. This is neither safe nor is it value for money.

"As a result, many nursing teams are depleted as they are not being given permanent contracts. This creates additional pressures and compounds existing problems. Sickness rates are also increasing."

It also emerged the north is tackling a 20 to 25 per cent staff shortage among nurses, with many graduates choosing to take up permanent posts in other parts of the NHS or abroad – with enticing 'golden hello' packages on offer.

The latest figures were published in response to an Assembly question from the Ulster Unionist party Upper Bann Assembly member, Samuel Gardiner.

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