£430k a day bill for agency staff in Northern Ireland heath service
Nearly £430,000 a day is spent hiring temporary staff to plug holes in Northern Ireland’s health service, it can be revealed.
Spending on agency staff reached £156m in the 12 months to April.
The bill has doubled in the last three years — in the 2014-15 financial year it was £76m — and has risen 16% on the previous year’s total of £134m.
It means that, on average, more than £427,000 is spent every day on agency staff.
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan called the spending “staggering” and “unsustainable”.
“This is money which would be better invested into a permanent workforce,” he said.
“The situation is glaring evidence of the lack of workforce planning right across the health service over a number of years.”
Figures obtained from the Department of Health show how the cost of agency staff has risen steadily. In the 2014/15 year the temporary staff bill was £76,508,610, growing to £91,398,542 the following year.
In 2016/17 this spiralled to £134,747,037, but now it stands at £156,109,091.
Hospitals and clinics are becoming increasingly reliant on agency nurses due to difficulties in filling staff posts.
The Belfast Trust, the biggest health trust here, had the highest spend in the last 12 months, totalling £48,518,366.
This was followed by the Northern Trust with £35,456,999, and £27,069,947 by the Western Trust.
The Southern and South Eastern Trusts spent a combined £44,191,990.
Medical and dental staff accounted for most of the overall locum expenditure, totalling £73,454,151 across the five trusts.
The total bill for nursing and midwifery across the trusts over the past year stood at £32,162,889, while £15,662,706 was spent on admin and clerical staff.
Over the past year, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service also had to shell out £871,789 on agency staff, up from £617,899 in 2016/17.
The Department of Health admitted the increasing agency and locum costs were not sustainable, particularly at a time of serious financial pressures right across the public sector.
The department added: “Trusts employ agency/locum staff for several reasons, for example, cover for sickness and maternity/paternity leave; cover for existing vacancies, and when demand increases over the winter months.
“The primary aim of this is to ensure that safe and effective services are sustained at all times for patients and clients. The Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy 2026: Delivering for Our People, which was published by the department in May 2018, sets out ambitious goals for a workforce that will match the requirements of a transformed system addressing the need to tackle serious challenges with supply, recruitment and retention of staff.
“In the meantime, maintaining services with safe staffing levels occasionally requires us to use higher-cost agency staff.”
Ulster Unionist health spokesman Roy Beggs said it showed the health service here “has become almost totally dependent on expensive locum staff in order to keep delivering basic services”.
He added: “That money should have been spent training and retaining suitable numbers of staff to work directly for the NHS.”
Sinn Fein’s health spokesman Pat Sheehan called on trusts to ensure they have the workforce to deliver services to the community. “Trusts need to be planning to reduce dependency on the independent sector in the future and build their in-house capacity,” he added.
Locum spending in social services also rose sharply. The bill in 2016/17 was £11,242,837, and had risen to £15,150,695 last year.
The British Association of Social Workers’ Carolyn Ewart said: “Relying on these types of contracts is proving unsustainable and it does not always result in the highest standards of care.
“Addressing agency and locum spend must be treated as a priority, and this challenge once again highlights the need for a Northern Ireland Executive to be established, with a Health Minister taking the tough decisions required to deliver for health and social care service users.”