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Health service's £230m bill for agency staff in Northern Ireland

By Ann W Schmidt

Published 11/11/2016

UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson
UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson

Northern Ireland's health service has spent £230m on agency staff in the last five years. The temporary workers - from medical, dental, nursing and midwifery agencies - are being called on to fill in where there are gaps in full-time staffing.

Spending on agency staff has almost doubled since 2011/12 - from £31.7m to £62.2m in the last financial year. On average, £170,000 was spent per day in 2015/16.

Unison official Joe McCusker said that Northern Ireland's Health Trusts should be looking for ways to secure their workforce, instead of spending so much money on agency help.

"We don't see a clear necessity to have such a large agency workforce working within the health service. More can be done by the health service employers to stabilise the workforce and recruit staff into the health service," he said.

He added that having a transient group of people working in the health service is an unsustainable model.

"What health employers need to do, they need to identify why they are spending so much on agency and then they need to assess whether they can justify spending this much or can they actually employ someone into the workforce."

UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson also expressed her concerns over the spending. "These figures confirm that the local health service is growing increasingly dependent on astronomically expensive locum staff just to maintain essential services," she said.

"While I understand some level of agency staff will always be required to fill temporary gaps in the workplace, these figures clearly demonstrate that the spending on agency staff has been spiralling year on year and is now most likely contributing to the local health service's financial woes."

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said the use of agency staff "is to ensure that service provision is maintained for patients and clients, in specific short-term circumstances, to address workforce shortages".

"In recognition of this, I have already invested in providing an additional 100 pre-registration nurse training places from September 2016 and have committed to increasing the number of GP Trainees from the current 85 to an annual total of 111 by 2018.

"My Department looks to the HSC Trusts to ensure that agency staff are only engaged when alternative workforce supply sources have been exhausted."

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