NHS Scotland spending on agency nurses soars to £23m

Although there are more nurses and doctors, they feel they are under increasing pressure. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Although there are more nurses and doctors, they feel they are under increasing pressure. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Hospital bosses are spending £64,000 per day to plug gaps in the NHS using private staff amid accusations that “utterly botched” planning has led to shortages of nurses and midwives.

The bill for hiring agency nurses to cover shifts in Scottish hospitals soared to £23 million in 2015-16, an increase of 45 per cent in a single year.

Opposition politicians said the Scottish Government had failed to properly plan for the NHS workforce as new figures laid bare the challenges facing Scotland’s wards. NHS staffing levels have reached a record high, but health boards are being forced to rely on costly agency staff to meet rising demand for services.

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There were more than 2,200 nursing and midwifery vacancies in March, a figure which has doubled since 2012 according to official NHS data published yesterday.

Agency nurses and midwives covered more than 500,000 hours of shifts last year, while bank staff, who are NHS staff taking on extra shifts, provided 8.3 million hours of cover on the wards last year at a cost of £134.6m.

Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar said: “We have seen from the GP crisis and consultant vacancies rates that the SNP government has utterly botched workforce planning in our NHS, meaning our hospitals have to turn to expensive agency staff to deliver the care patients need.

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“At a time when only a third of NHS staff feel there is enough of them to do their job properly, it will leave a sour taste in the mouth that so much is being spent on agency staff.”

Recruiting and retaining staff has been a major problem within the NHS.

A quarter of GP practices are reporting at least one vacancy, while the Royal College of GPs Scotland warned of a looming shortfall of up to 900 family doctors by 2020.

Midwives previously raised fears of a retirement timebomb that could threaten the future of maternity services, as the number of staff in their fifties and sixties in Scotland soared by a third between June 2011 and June 2015.

Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron said: “This is a clear indication that there are not enough staff to cover Scotland’s wards.

“It’s the Scottish Government’s responsibility to ensure the NHS is properly funded so it is properly staffed.”

Nursing leaders said staff were under huge pressure at work, with many feeling they are too busy to care for their patients properly.

A major survey of NHS Scotland employees last year revealed only 26 per cent of nurses and midwives thought their department had enough staff.

Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: “These figures clearly show that health boards are struggling to deliver services to more and more people, with budgets not keeping pace with the increasing demands on the NHS.

“Nursing staff are also under pressure at work, with the majority feeling they do not have time to care for patients as they would wish to.

“Transformational change is needed and all stakeholders, including politicians and health and care professionals, must be willing to put vested interests to one side and work together for a common cause – to ensure our NHS is sustainable for the future.”

Ministers have invested £450,000 over the next three years to encourage qualified nurses to return to work and a dedicated team was set up in December to address spending on temporary staff.

Health secretary Shona Robison said the overwhelming majority of work was done by NHS staff but acknowledged more needed to be done to reduce agency spending.

She said: “Under this government, NHS staff numbers have risen significantly, with more consultants, nurses and midwives now delivering care for the people of Scotland.

“This demonstrates that we are investing in and supporting a highly skilled NHS Scotland workforce.

“In addition to having record staffing levels, Scotland is leading the UK in developing mandatory nursing and midwifery workload and workforce planning tools that help health boards to plan for the number of staff they require, ensuring the best possible care for patients.”