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NHS in Northern Ireland spends almost £350m on agency staff

The Northern Ireland health service has spent almost £350m on agency staff in just five years, with chronic staff shortages

As the country faces the worst waiting list crisis for more than a decade, this staggering figure has been spent on locum doctors and nurses due to hospitals being desperately short of staff. With reviews underway, there have been calls for the reform of the health care system. This is a common problem plaguing the NHS.

Reports reveal that stand-in hospital consultants can make thousands of pounds for just a couple of days’ work, earning up to three times as much as NHS regular staff. The amount paid out for locum doctors has risen from £34m in 2010/11 to £76.5m in 2014/15 – a huge 80 per cent increase over the five-year period. This has forced health trust bosses to urgently review the process.

Six months prior to the reviewing process, a leaked letter from Dr Michael McBride alerted senior directors to the huge outlay on temporary doctors. Dr McBride, who is the head of the Belfast Trust, advised that the spending would need to be controlled and reduced; however, no action was taken.

The NHS is using an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money on agency and locum staff, from doctors and nurses to administration and technical teams. Over the last five years, the cost of recruiting stand-in nurses has risen from £6.9m to £12m.

The spending figure for 2015/16 is set to skyrocket, with the UK Pay Review Body revealing that Northern Ireland’s five health trusts have spent £40.2m in just six months on temporary staff. This is a real concern for the NHS.

Health trusts can generally hire staff through recruitment firms with which they have a contract, which includes agreed pay rates; however, health trusts can also turn to private agencies as a way to recruit staff, which can charge any price they wish.

It is reported that a review on agency, locum and bank spending has begun, with all the trusts agreeing to a specific process for collecting and reporting data and reaching a universal understanding for each area of expenditure.

A blistering report by the watchdog Stormont four years ago sounded the alarm about recruitment firms and how the NHS was at the mercy of agencies exploiting the staff shortage.

The Public Accounts Committee condemned recruitment firms for making a handsome profit from scandalously high temporary worker pay rates at the expense of the taxpayer.

A general practitioner from Belfast, Dr George O’Neill, explained that the bill for agency staff is the result of the current widespread shortage of doctors, with fewer doctors per head of population than anywhere else in Europe. The GP also expressed that some medics were capitalising on the situation, as they could earn more as locums. He described this desire to make more money as ‘human nature’.

Dr O’Neill believes that the enormous bill is a direct consequence of having 10 acute hospitals in Northern Ireland. Until decision makers can reduce this number to three or four, he expects the health care system to suffer.

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