Belfast Telegraph

Health service pays £376m for agency staff since 2015 to keep Northern Ireland hospitals running

By Adrian Rutherford

Spending on agency staff to plug gaps in Northern Ireland's health service is set to reach £150m in 2018.

The cost of temporary workers has doubled in the last three years.

In the six months from April to September this year, the total expenditure was £73.4m - more than £400,000 a day.

At the current rate, the bill for this financial year - running to the start of next April - will be almost £147m. That is double the spend for the 2014/15 year, when costs topped £76m.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs described the spiralling costs as "staggering" and warned the health service was in "dire straits".

The Department of Health admitted the costs were unsustainable. Details of agency spending were released after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

The details show:

  • A total of £376,123,272 was spent on agency staff between April 2015 and September this year.
  • The Belfast Trust - Northern Ireland's biggest health trust - had the highest spend in that time, totalling £125,290,844.
  • Medical and dental staff accounted for most of the expenditure, totalling £187,983,283 across the five health trusts. Hospitals and clinics are becoming increasingly reliant on agency nurses due to difficulties in filling staff posts.

Agencies charge a premium, and take a big cut, for supplying skilled workers at short notice.

Last month this newspaper reported how health trusts were paying up to £120 an hour for agency nurses.

The figures obtained by this newspaper show how the spending has spiralled.

In the 2014/15 year the bill was £76,508,610, growing to £91,398,542 the following year. Then in 2016/17 the bill was £134,747,037.

The cost for the first six months of the current financial year was £73,469,083.

Mr Beggs said radical transformation was needed. "The public will be appalled at these figures which show a dramatic year on year increase in the reliance on agency staff," he said. "It looks like money is being spent on attempting to plug an increasing number of gaps in our health service. There has been an absence of effective leadership and in workforce planning.

"The health service is in dire straits with growing waiting lists and blockages in the health system.

"But paying more money to agency staff is not going to address the fundamental problem."

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said the surge in spending reinforced the need for action.

"The employment of costly agency staff underscores how unsustainable the current system is.

"While nurses here are yet to receive parity of pay we are paying more and more for agency staff. There needs to be urgent reform," he said.

The Department of Health said: "We recognise that increasing agency and locum costs are not sustainable, particularly at a time of serious financial pressures right across the public sector.

"This is why transformation of health and social care in Northern Ireland is such a priority for the department.

"HSC 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 department continues to closely monitor spend with Trusts.

"Medical vacancy rates across health and social care is an issue we intend to deal with as part of a future workforce strategy, in terms of sustainable workforce planning and seeking to ensure that medics want to work in the HSC in the first instance, and not as locums."

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