Hospitals in England have spent more than £3 billion on agency nurses in the last few years, according to new data.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) gathered figures under the Freedom of Information Act from 182 NHS trusts on spending on agency nurses plus nursing staff such as assistants and support workers.
The union said every region has spent millions of pounds, which it suggested could have paid the salaries of almost 31,000 full-time nurses or trained more than 86,000 new ones.
In total, NHS trusts spent £3.2 billion between 2020 and 2022, with the London region spending the most at almost £630.5 million, followed by the South East at £582 million.
Hospitals use doctors and nurses as temporary agency staff to fill gaps in rotas.
In England, trust leaders are allowed to pay a maximum of 155% of normal staff hourly rates for agency staff.
They can only pay above this limit “on exceptional patient safety grounds”.
Official NHS flexible staff banks also exist which place health workers with employers who need to fill temporary gaps.
NHS England data shows that one in 10 registered nursing posts stood vacant at the end of September (42,306 vacancies).
RCN chief nurse, Professor Nicola Ranger, said: “Ministers have got their priorities wrong – forcing trusts to squander billions on agency staff while they provide miserly funding for fair pay and nurse education.
“With cuts to nurse education and maintaining unfair pay levels, ministers are choosing to spend the money on much higher private agency bills instead. This is yet another false economy when it comes to NHS spending.
“This should act as a wake-up call. The Government must give nursing staff and patients the investment and respect they deserve.
“Not acting now will mean even more patients on waiting lists and the crisis in the nursing workforce deepening further.”
Shadow minister of state, Karin Smyth, said: “The Government’s failure to train enough NHS staff has led to spiralling agency costs to keep the health service afloat.
“Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent as a short-term solution to staff shortages, instead of being invested in the NHS workforce, while patients receive worse quality care as a result.
“Only Labour has a long-term plan to renew the health service. By getting the NHS working on weekends, we will put £1.1bn directly into the pockets of NHS staff, as well as delivering two million more appointments a year for patients.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “These statistics cover the Covid pandemic when the NHS was under huge additional pressure and staff sickness rates were exceptionally high.
“While temporary staffing allows the NHS to meet fluctuations in demand, we are controlling spending by capping hourly pay and prioritising NHS staff when shifts need filling.
“We have recruited more than 50,000 extra nurses compared to 2019 – hitting our target early – and the long-term workforce plan is ensuring the NHS has the staff it needs over the next 15 years so that patients continue to receive the best possible care.”