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£200,000: our daily spend on temporary hospital staff

By Adrian Rutherford

Almost £200,000 a day is being spent on temporary workers to plug the gaps in Northern Ireland's under-staffed health system.

Spending on agency staff is expected to top £70m this year, having soared by 60% over the last four years.

In some cases nurses costing as much as £87 an hour were brought in to cover chronic staff shortages.

It comes as an investigation by this newspaper reveals how tens of millions of pounds have been spent paying for staff from agencies.

Since April 2010 temporary staff have cost the health service more than £214m.

The figure for the last nine months alone is £53m – equivalent to a staggering £194,000 a day.

Critics have accused health chiefs of "squandering" money on temporary workers, and claimed recruiting more full-time staff would provide much better value.

Expenditure on agency staff was revealed in response to Freedom of Information requests from the Belfast Telegraph.

Between April 2010 and December 2013, the five trusts spent a combined £214,003,622 on temporary staff. That included £68,492,478 in 2012/13 and a further £53,394,850 between April and December last year.

In some cases spending on agency staff has spiralled alarmingly. The Southern and South Eastern Trusts both saw their bills more than double since 2010.

The Belfast and Northern Trusts also saw their agency bills rise sharply. Medical and nursing staff accounted for most of the expenditure.

However, despite increased spending on staff hospitals remain under huge pressure.

Last week it emerged two patients waited on a trolley in the Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency department for over 29 hours.

And in January a Major Incident was declared at the Royal because of a large backlog of patients at the A&E department.

Patricia McKeown from the Unison union warned the system was out of control.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, she states: "Across the negotiating table we have been continually told that the practice has ceased. On the ground we are continually told by workers that it continues at full pace.

"The amount of money being squandered on agency costs is more than the current financial deficit across the entire service, which today stands at £210m."

Since April 2010 more than £30m has been spent on agency nurses alone.

In one case, the Southern Trust paid £87 an hour for agency nurses, although the trust pointed out this was a holiday rate. In other instances, trusts have paid up to £65 an hour for nurses.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said stable nursing teams were needed to ensure consistent and high standards of care.

"As a result of cost-cutting exercises and high sickness absence levels, there has been an ongoing over-reliance on the use of bank and agency nurses," she said.

"The overall expenditure of £53m on the supply of health and social care professionals over the past nine months is unacceptably high and raises questions about value for money."

MLAs questioned how much of the money was going to the agencies rather than front line services.

SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney, who sits on the Stomont health committee, said: "They are staggering and illustrate exactly why there is a pressing need for long-term planning with regards to staffing.

"What isn't in the figures is the amount of money that is going directly to the agencies, and therefore, we can take from that, money not going into frontline services."

UUP MLA Roy Beggs said there had been too much reliance on agency staff.

"Better value for money will be achieved if permanent staff are appointed and allocated on a 24/7 basis rather than the huge reliance on agency service which exists at present," he said.

Health Minister Edwin Poots said: "The use of temporary staff covering staff absence and temporary vacancies is a vital resource to ensure the delivery of safe and effective care and to ensure the continuity of care."

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