Belfast Telegraph

Hospitals spend £400,000 a day for agency staff to plug chronic shortages in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Almost £400,000 a day is being spent dealing with chronic staff shortages in our health service, it has been revealed.

Health trusts spent a staggering £140m on bank and agency workers in just 12 months.

More than 1,000 posts are vacant in Northern Ireland's hospitals, forcing trusts to employ temporary staff. This usually comes at a significant cost.

The Belfast Telegraph has previously reported how agency nurses at one health trust were paid up to £87 an hour.

In the 12 months to last April, a total of £140,607,692 was spent on agency and bank staff - equivalent to £385,226 a day.

The figures were disclosed by Health Minister Simon Hamilton after an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney.

Mr McKinney said the scale of expenditure was appalling.

"The figures are staggering and illustrate exactly why there is a pressing need for long-term planning with regards to staffing," he said.

"Considering the many pressures in the health system, a bill of £140m for banking and agency staff is appalling. Under the DUP stewardship of the health service, the agency bill alone has risen by almost £30m since 2011.

"Worryingly, what we do not know is the amount of this money that is going directly to the agencies and being redirected from front line services.

"The Health Minister and the Health Department must explain themselves and why many permanent health care workers are denied a fair and proper pay increase while the system is shovelling money wholesale to fill temporary gaps."

Mr Hamilton's answer covers the 12 months to April 2015.

The Belfast Trust - Northern Ireland's largest health trust - spent just over £47m in that period on bank and agency staff.

The Northern Trust allocated £28.7m, while the Western Trust's bill topped £25m.

Kevin McAdam from the Unite union said there was a total lack of planning.

"It is an absolute disgrace that workforce planning is not carried out effectively at department or trust level," he said. "Short-term cuts are creating crises which can only be filled by agency staff. Departments are making cuts to show cost savings on paper, but are then bringing in agency staff, which ultimately cost more.

"In trying to save money, they actually cost themselves money. It is nothing short of a scandal."

Last month an investigation by the BBC found there were more than 850 nursing vacancies across four of Northern Ireland's five health trusts.

Figures also revealed there were 243 doctor vacancies.

Nursing vacancies at the Southern Health Trust went up by 1,000% in two years - from 19 to 226. The Belfast Trust reported more than 500 available nursing positions and 113 unfilled doctors' posts.

The South Eastern Trust did not supply information, meaning the true figure will be higher.

Garrett Martin from the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland estimated there are about 1,500 nursing vacancies across all sectors.

"Ill-judged cost-saving measures and inadequate workforce planning have created a significant over-reliance on the supply of nurses through the nurse bank and nursing agencies," he said.

"This has resulted in high levels of nurse vacancies across the health service and the nursing home sector, with demand for nursing staff outstripping the supply.

"In addition, HSC trusts are turning increasingly to agency staff, because demand for nursing staff via nurse banks is outstripping supply.

"This is of great concern, since it can impact on the quality of care, nor is it value for money."

"Nursing teams are depleted, which creates additional pressures and compounds existing problems, particularly in relation to continuity of care for patients."

The Department of Health said: "Trust expenditure on agency nurses ensures safe and effective services and contributes significantly to maintaining services, often across smaller sites.

"Reasons for HSC trusts employing agency staff can include, for example, cover for sickness, maternity and increases in beds over the winter months. It is, however, an important policy aim for the health service to endeavour to reduce expenditure on agency, locum and bank staff."

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