Northern Ireland news

Muckamore agency nurse spending hits £8.4m in a a year as almost 80 staff linked to abuse scandal suspended

Almost 80 staff have been suspended from Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim. Picture Mal McCann
Seanín Graham

AGENCY nurse wages at Muckamore Abbey Hospital have doubled in a year to £8 million - with cover needed to replace almost 80 suspended staff linked to an abuse scandal.

The Irish News has learned the bill is expected to rise further, as temporary agency employees now make up three-quarters of the nursing workforce at the Co Antrim facility.

Sources saying there is "panic" among health chiefs about the spend and "inherent vulnerability" of the severely depleted workforce.

Nursing chiefs also expressed "great concern" last night about the development said it reflected "very serious shortages" particularly in specialist areas.

Figures disclosed by the Belfast trust show that while the spend for the 2020/21 financial hit £8.4m, the estimate for the five month period between April and August this year is already £2.7m.

Hourly rates of up to £41.90 are charged by agencies to provide nursing cover at the regional hospital for adults with severe learning disabilities. Some staff nurses earn less than £10 an hour.

A public inquiry is due to get underway next month while 24 people have been arrested in what is the biggest criminal investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland, with 1,500 suspected crimes discovered in one ward alone.

Registered nurses are among those who allegedly physically and mentally abused vulnerable adult patients. CCTV footage - staff did not realise the cameras were recording - revealed the scale of the assaults.

The trust confirmed that 78 staff are now suspended while "five or less" have been sacked.

Payments to suspended staff between April 2020 and March 2021 reached £771,000, with a further £377,000 paid out between April and August.

Nurses' sick pay cost the trust £720,000 last year while the cost for this year from April to August is £534,000.

A trust spokeswoman could not confirm the exact number of dismissals due to data protection and said an internal disciplinary process was ongoing.

Dolores McCormick, associate director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the workforce crisis had severely impacted on Muckamore.

“The shortage of nursing staff across Northern Ireland and high usage of agency staff to cover over the past few years is of great concern. The Muckamore Abbey hospital agency figures reflect the very serious nursing shortages we are experiencing, particularly in specialist areas, in this case learning disability," she said.

"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.

"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."

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