Northern Ireland

Health service agency staff bill doubles in five years to almost £400m

The NHS in the north is paying up to £120 an hour for agency nurses as it struggles to plug staff shortages
The amount spent on agency staff represents almost 3% of the Department of Health’s annual budget

Stormont’s cash-strapped health department spent almost £400m on agency staff in the last financial year, Robin Swann has confirmed.

The minister said the substantial spending by the Health and Social Care (HSC) Trust was necessary to “ensure the safe and effective services are sustained”.

The amount spent on agency staff has effectively doubled in the past five years and now represents almost 3% of the Department of Health’s annual budget.

In response to a written question from People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, the minister said the “total agency spend” for 2022/23 was £394m.

Health Minister Robin Swann said he had asked for military assistance almost two weeks ago.
Health Minister Robin Swann

Mr Swann said that around half the figure – £196m – was spent on what he termed “off framework agency/locum spend”, meaning the conditions around employment of staff aren’t as rigorous as those set out in NHS framework agreements.

He also indicated that projected spend for the current year is £373m, with £110m expected to be spent on off-framework staff.

However, the minister highlighted that the latest figures quoted were estimates and “should be treated with extreme caution”.

Mr Carroll described the sums revealed by the minister as “eye watering”.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

“Stormont and Westminster have thrown obscene sums at private agencies over successive years while the NHS goes to ruin,” he said.

“What we are seeing here is a deliberate policy of privatisation, which could eventually see health services sold off to the highest bidder.”

The West Belfast MLA said the figures were a “particular insult” to junior doctors who this week held a one-day strike aimed at securing a pay rise.

“All of those workers who have fought for fair pay and investment in our health service will be utterly dismayed by this gross misspending of public money,” he said.

“The health minister cannot keep throwing good money after bad – Stormont must stop giving to the private sector and invest that money in the future of the NHS.”

Mr Swann said there had been progress across HSC in reducing agency usage.

“Reducing agency spend is important and not just because of the costs involved – HSC staff have been clear that excessive agency use is unfair and impacts on morale and more importantly, having consistent clinical teams also enhances patient safety,” he said.

He said transformation of health and social care was “an essential priority”.