The beleaguered NHS is being forced to hand over up to £1,900 a shift for a single nurse to cover staffing shortages.
The bill for agency nurses and midwives in Scotland last year topped £23 million, with some private companies charging as much as £140 an hour to supply workers.
The rate equates to an annual salary of £290,000 – more than ten times what the average nurse earns.
Temporary staff get around £25 to £40 an hour for working on a public holiday, with the rest of the fee made up of “administration” charges.
The highest payment in 2017 was made by NHS Lanarkshire to the London-based Scottish Nursing Guild. The bill for supplying a nurse to work a 14-hour shift on Christmas Day at University Hospital Wishaw came to £1,877.
The same firm charged NHS Grampian £1,739 for a 12.5-hour shift on Christmas Day at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
Employing an intensive care nurse from Mayfair Specialist Nurses on a bank holiday at Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children cost NHS Lothian £1,545.
Scottish health boards claim they are over a barrel and are forced to pay the going rate.
“Where agency use is the only option for filling a shift at short notice, the rate paid will be determined by the agency,” said Kay Sandilands, deputy human resources director for NHS Lanarkshire.
Where replacement staff require particular expertise, agencies can virtually name their price. Referring to the 25 December shift, Ms Sandilands said: “In this case the only agency able to supply a staff member with the required skill-set was the Scottish Nursing Guild. We therefore had to accept their quote.”
Union leaders and opposition politicians have hit out at the figures, calling on Scottish ministers to stop the NHS being exploited in this way.
“Health boards continue to struggle to fill permanent nursing posts and are having to resort to expensive agency nurses to fill the gaps,” said Norman Provan, of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland.
“While some investment in agency nursing will always be needed to cover unexpected events like sickness, health boards cannot continue to ratchet up spending on agency nurses. It is not sustainable, and the lack of continuity for nursing teams can impact on the care patients receive and on staff morale.”
Anas Sarwar, health spokesman for Scottish Labour, said resorting to temp staff is a “false economy”.
Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs described the charges as “eye-watering”.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said spending on agency nursing staff had dropped by 3.6 per cent in the past year.
He added: “The majority of temporary shifts are filled through the NHS staff bank.”