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Agency nurse spending spirals as NHS grapples with short-staffing

Employers forced to flout spending limits on fees for agency nurses at a time when ministers tell NHS staff their pay demand is unaffordable
Handwritten banner says 'fair pay for nurses' as figures show steep rise in agency fees to cover nursing shifts in the NHS

Employers forced to flout spending limits on fees for agency nurses at a time when ministers tell NHS staff their pay demand is unaffordable

Nursing agencies are charging NHS organisation up to £2,500 to supply cover for just a single shift.

Analysis by the Labour Party found trusts are breaching government spending caps on agency cover by paying firms thousands of pounds per shift because they are so short-staffed.

The NHS in England has spent more than £3 billion on agency nurses and doctors this year, up from £2.4 billion last year, Labour says.

This, as tens of thousands of NHS nurses across the UK prepare to strike over poor pay and patient safety concerns, with prime minister Rishi Sunak

Employers forced to flout spending limits on fees for agency nurses at a time when ministers tell NHS staff their pay demand is unaffordable

Handwritten banner says 'fair pay for nurses' as figures show steep rise in agency fees to cover nursing shifts in the NHS
Picture: Mark Hakansson

Nursing agencies are charging NHS organisation up to £2,500 to supply cover for just a single shift.

Analysis by the Labour Party found trusts are breaching government spending caps on agency cover by paying firms thousands of pounds per shift because they are so short-staffed.

The NHS in England has spent more than £3 billion on agency nurses and doctors this year, up from £2.4 billion last year, Labour says.

This, as tens of thousands of NHS nurses across the UK prepare to strike over poor pay and patient safety concerns, with prime minister Rishi Sunak saying the RCN’s 5%-above-inflation pay demand is unaffordable.

Spending caps being exceeded

In theory, agency pay rates are capped at 55% above what an equivalent employee would receive, but four in ten agency nurse shifts exceeded that limit last year, the figures suggest.

The most expensive single shift came to £2,549, paid by Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Swindon, Labour’s Freedom of Information requests revealed. And Medway NHS Foundation Trust in Kent spent more than any other trust on agency staff, paying £77 million last year alone.

No way to address staffing shortage

RCN chief executive Pat Cullen said such reliance on agencies was short-sighted amid a record 47,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England and called for the issue to be addressed in next week’s autumn budget statement.

‘Temporary staff have vital roles but should not be continually used to offset a shortfall in permanent staff,’ she added.

‘We are told a pay rise for nursing is unaffordable and yet billions of pounds are being spent on agency staff. Nursing and patients deserve better.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said there was a clear policy to reduce agency spend by capping the hourly rate and using approved NHS agreements.

‘Agency spend fell by a third overall between 2016 and 2021,’ they said.

Ms Cullen met health and social care secretary Steve Barclay this week after nurses voted to strike. Mr Barclay said the meeting was constructive but gave no hint about whether the current 4% offer would be improved.


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