Northern Ireland news

Agency staff bill to plug NHS shortages hits £254m

Spending on agency nurses rocketed to almost £90 million last year
Seanín Graham

SPENDING on agency staff to tackle health service workforce shortages soared to £254 million last year - with a nursing leader branding the bill "completely unacceptable".

The figures reveal that costs for temporary NHS workers in Northern Ireland have increased by almost 180 per cent since 2015/16, with some trusts paying high fees to private recruitment agencies for emergency cover.

Nursing agency staff accounted for almost a third of the latest bill, which only goes up to March 2020 and pre-dates the pandemic.

The development comes almost a year after an audit report slated the Department of Health over cuts to nurse training places a decade ago in order to make"short-term savings", a move they said led to a hike in agency spending during a period of increased patient demand.

The watchdog discovered three health trusts paid private firms up to £1,700 to cover single nursing shifts during holiday periods, warning they provided "particularly poor value for money".

Health minister Robin Swann gave a breakdown of the latest locum spending across the north's trusts, saying it ensured "safe and effective services are sustained at all times for patients and clients".

Mr Swann also pointed to "sustained investment" in the nursing and midwifery workforce.

There are more 3,000 unfilled nursing jobs in Northern Ireland as fears grow about ICU staff quitting their jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic.

According to the figures, spending on agency nurses has risen by almost 470 per cent in five years - from £15.8m to £89.7m.

Rita Devlin, acting director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), attributed the hike to poor workforce planning by the department and cuts to student places.

The RCN took strike action early last year due to "unsafe" staffing levels and pay.

Ms Devlin said: "Nursing agency costs have risen dramatically over recent years because of serious nursing shortages across hospital and community services. This situation has been created over a number of years as a result of inadequate workforce planning and short term cost-savings measures including reductions in the number of nurses trained in Northern Ireland.

"A reduction in agency spend will only be possible when health and social care services and the independent sector are able to recruit and retain enough nursing staff to meet our needs...A fair pay increase is an essential part of any retention strategy.

"The cost of deploying nursing staff via nursing agencies has reached unsustainable levels. Pressures within the system have led many nurses to make career decisions to leave full-time employment and work for nurse banks or agencies, or to leave the profession altogether. Working in the health service must become a more attractive prospect otherwise this high level of spend on agency staff will continue.

"While the current levels of expenditure are completely unacceptable, the reality is that they are plugging gaps which should never have been allowed to develop."

Health committee chair Colm Gildernew received the agency costs through a written Assembly question.

He said: "Given the pressures on the health service budget, it is worrying there's no apparent plan in place to address serious workforce shortages.

"We need to see a focussed plan on how agency spending is going to be addressed because it continues to rise without any checks."

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