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NHS spend on agency nurses rises 150%

Nurses warn 'payday loans' attitude to workforce planning is harmful to patient care

Louise Prime

Thursday, 05 February 2015

The NHS’s “payday loans” attitude to workforce planning has led to a vast increase in spending on agency nurses, the Royal College of Nursing revealed this morning. Nursing leaders said short-sighted cuts in the numbers of permanent nursing staff have resulted in high dependence on agency nursing staff, which they warned is hampering continuity of care and is bad for patients.

In researching The cost of short-term planning, the RCN made Freedom of Information requests to trusts across England, and uncovered an “unprecedented rise” in the amount that the NHS spends on agency nursing staff. The projected spend by the end of this financial year is at least £980m, if action is not taken – an average of £4.2 million per trust, and an increase of 150% since 2012-13.

The RCN estimated that there are at least 20,000 nursing vacancies across the UK and it pointed out that, with proper long-term planning, the money spent on agency nurses could instead have been used to solve that problem. It said £980m would pay for 28,155 permanent nursing staff, with a mix of different bands “which would provide the right balance of specialist skills and experience to provide high quality patient care, with better continuity”. It added that a clear link had already been established between staffing levels and safe patient care.

The College said nurses have been forced into agency work by workforce cuts, cuts to nurse training places, years of pay restraint and attacks on terms and conditions – making recruitment and retention difficult. Then, as trusts have needed to increase staffing levels to cope with the increasing demand, they have been forced to rely on expensive agencies because of the severe shortage of permanent nursing staff.

Dr Peter Carter, RCN chief executive & general secretary, said: “This report shows the true financial cost of a health service which takes a ‘payday loans’ attitude towards workforce planning, leaving itself at the mercy of agencies because it refused to invest sensibly in the past.

“What it doesn’t show is the cost to patients – over-reliance on agency staff is bad for continuity of care, and that is bad for patients.

“Cutting the supply of nurses was reckless and short-sighted but concerns were batted away in a misguided attempt to save money.

“The NHS is under immense pressure and it is now time for serious workforce investment and sensible, long-term workforce planning. Anything less will be selling future generations severely short.”

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