Northern Ireland news

Agency nurse bill rockets to £1million a month at Belfast trust

The Belfast trust is spending £1 million a month on hiring agency nurses
Seanín Graham

HIRING costly agency nurses to tackle chronic staff shortages is costing Northern Ireland's biggest health trust £1 million a month.

Leaked figures reveal the spiralling Belfast health trust bill, which has sparked an angry response from unions who accuse NHS managers of failing to employ adequate numbers of full-time staff and relying on private companies.

The internal 'workforce trends' document probes spending on agency workers - including nurses, medics and support staff - since April 2015 and concludes that £42m will be spent by the end of 2016/17 financial year - which ended last week.

Health professionals can earn up to three times more for a shift when hired by agencies, with some nurses receiving up to £90 an hour.

Locum consultants have the potential to make thousands of pounds for several days' work.

While health trusts have contracts with many private firms which allows them to operate agreed pay rates, they also use agencies where no contract is in place and who can charge exorbitant fees.

The multi-million spend comes two years after the trust's former chief executive Dr Michael McBride issued a no-holds-barred warning to the trust's top 10 directors to urgently rein in spending on locum staff, specifically doctors.

The high-level document also reveals a projected £9.7m bill for agency nurses for 2016/17 - a 175 per cent increase on the previous financial year. Spending on agency doctors will hit almost £18m.

Garrett Martin, deputy director of the Royal College of Nursing, said the bill was "absolutely staggering" and highlighted the "complete lack of workforce planning".

"When you allow supply not to meet the demand this is going to happen. There has also been short-sighted saving plans such as banning overtime, not replacing staff and cuts to permanent contracts," he said.

"In addition, the 10 per cent cuts to nursing places at Queen's six years ago is still being felt. While health minister Michelle O'Neill increased funding this will take a while to take effect as it is a three-year degree course.

"The fact is that nurses are voting with their feet. They can go to an agency and get better paid and choose when they want to work."

The Irish News asked the Belfast health trust to account for the big increase in its agency bill at a time of efficiency savings across the sector.

A spokeswoman said: "There is a UK-wide workforce shortage in respect of the nursing profession which has affected all health and social care trusts. While we try to utilise our workforce to cover vacant shifts at times we do have to use to external nursing agencies. Due to the nursing workforce shortages our expenditure in this regard has risen since April 2015."

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