Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's health trusts spent £11.5m on nurses from Scottish agency

The Department of Health has admitted spending on agency nurses in Northern Ireland is "unsustainable" after it emerged the five health trusts here spend £11.5m hiring staff from a Scottish nursing agency in the last financial year.

The BBC reports £11,562,158 was spent on nurses from the Scottish Nursing Guild (SNG) in 2017/18.

SNG provides nurses to each of the health trusts in Northern Ireland.

In 2015/16 the health trusts spent £3,872,008- meaning there has been a threefold increase in the number of staff hired from SNG in the space of three years.

It is understood some agency nurses are paid up to £60 per hour but nursing agencies do not offer paid leave, sick pay or other benefits.

The jobs search engine Indeed shows a theatre nurse working in Belfast is paid on average £42.29.

A nurse employed by the NHS in Northern Ireland is paid between £11.21 and £16.05 per hour, on average, or between £21,910- £31,383 a year.

The Northern Health Trust had the biggest spend and increase- from £1.7m in 2015/16 to £4.2m in 2017/18.

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Concern: Janice Smyth

Royal College of Nursing Director Janice Smyth, speaking to the BBC, said over use of agency staff is having a demoralising effect on nurses employed by the NHS, who are often doing the same work but for much less pay.

Ms Smyth added: "Many nurses now find themselves in a position where they're working alongside someone doing the same work but earning vastly different sums.

"We heard today from a nurse who was working for £14 an hour alongside another nurse doing the same work for £60 an hour through an agency.

"That situation should never have been allowed to develop, but it's here and the only way out of it is to pay our nurses properly, train more nurses - as we're doing - and to make sure the pressures on the workforce are reduced."

Ms Smyth said the figures showed the Department of Health cost-saving measures were not working.

"This situation has been developing for a number of years and it goes way back to when we started to reduce the number of nurses that we were training here and that was compounded by short-term cost saving measures which froze vacancies and slowed recruitment," she said.

"When you have decreasing numbers of nurses combined with increasing demands on services, you have increasing pressure on staff and agency work becomes an alternative for some nurses and that industry grows and the cost of providing nurses becomes extreme."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “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 recognises 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. "

The spokeswoman said the Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy, published in May 2018, will tackle the serious challenges the NHS in Northern Ireland faces with supply, recruitment and retention of staff.

The spokeswoman added: "In the meantime, maintaining services with safe staffing levels occasionally requires us to use higher-cost agency staff.”

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