Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland health trusts pay £43m in five years to just one nursing provider

Graphic *** Local Caption *** Graphic
Graphic *** Local Caption *** Graphic

By Lisa Smyth

Cash-strapped health chiefs have paid out more than £43m to just one nursing agency provider in the last five years, it can be revealed.

The Scottish Nursing Guild (SNG) raked in more than £4.4m between April and June this year alone, while health trusts across Northern Ireland struggled to balance the books.

Payments to the SNG have surged from £1m to £14m over the last five years, though initially only three of the five health trusts used the company.

The eye-watering figures highlight an increasing reliance on agency nurses to keep the health service in Northern Ireland running.

They have also raised questions over a failure to put in place legislation here that caps the amount of money nursing agencies can charge the NHS.

In October 2015 the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a framework to bring an end to, as he put it, “rip-off” charges by medical staffing agencies that were costing the health service billions of pounds for doctors and nurses to fill shifts.

However, the Health Minister here at the time, Simon Hamilton, did not follow suit and a similar cap has never been implemented in Northern Ireland.

Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt
Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that the SNG, which pays registered nurses £59 an hour to work in a hospital ward on a bank holiday, received just over £1m from health trusts in Northern Ireland in 2014/15.

The Western and South Eastern trusts did not use the company, which is one of a series of firms which provides agency nurses, to fill vacant nursing shifts during that period.

By 2018/19 the bill had jumped to more than £14m — an increase of more than 1,000%, though by this point the agency was providing agency nurses to all five health trusts.

The Northern Trust paid the most to SNG between 2014/15 and June this year, racking up a bill of almost £14m. It paid more than £1.1m between April and June this year alone.

The Northern Trust was closely followed by the Southern Trust which paid more than £13m between 2014/15 and June this year.

The Belfast Trust shelled out almost £10m to SNG over the same period, while the Western Trust paid almost £4m between 2015/16 and June this year.

The South Eastern Trust had the smallest bill — standing at just under £3m for agency nurses from SNG between 2015/16 and June this year.

The figures have come to light just weeks after it emerged that one in six people in Northern Ireland is waiting longer than one year for a first outpatient appointment.

Staff shortages and budget cuts are largely to blame for Northern Ireland’s spiralling waiting list shame.

At the same time, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland is campaigning for better pay and conditions for its members in Northern Ireland as an increasing number of nurses are leaving the profession due to burn-out.

There are currently around 2,600 vacant registered nursing posts in the health service, and a similar level in nursing homes, meaning health bosses are being forced to turn to agencies to keep services running.

Paula Bradshaw, the Alliance Party’s health spokeswoman, said: “I have been working closely with the RCN over recent months in lobbying the Department of Health to address the sustainability of the nursing workforce and the high levels of pressure and responsibility placed upon them.

The Alliance Party’s Paula Bradshaw
The Alliance Party’s Paula Bradshaw

“Therefore, it is understandable why many qualified nurses opt to work for nursing agencies or, increasingly, work in a full-time job for a health trust, plus register with a nursing agency for bank shifts, to supplement their income.

“There are a number of issues that need to be addressed — firstly, this immediate one of installing a legislative framework in Northern Ireland that ensures that agencies operate within a controlled environment.

“Secondly, we need to stabilise the nursing workforce here by ensuring that their pay and conditions are comparable to agency staff, so that vacancies become less frequent due to stress and unsafe working practices.”

RCN (NI) director Pat Cullen said: “The RCN has continuously highlighted how excessive expenditure on agency nurses is a symptom of the nurse staffing crisis here in Northern Ireland. Addressing this issue is a major priority for our safe and effective care campaign.”

The SNG declined to comment. A spokesman from the Department of Health said no cap exists in Northern Ireland to restrict the amount of money medical staffing agencies can charge the health service.

When he announced his plans to introduce a cap on agency charges in October 2015, Mr Hunt said: “For too long staffing agencies have been able to rip off the NHS by charging extortionate hourly rates which cost billions of pounds a year and undermine staff working hard to deliver high-quality care.

“The tough new controls on spending that we’re putting in place will help the NHS improve continuity of care for patients and invest in the frontline, while putting an end to the days of unscrupulous companies charging up to £3,500 a shift for a doctor.”

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