Agency staff stats reveal ‘unsustainable’ shortage in the NHS, says RCN

Figures ‘expose the untenable short-staffing crisis across the NHS’

Figures ‘expose the untenable short-staffing crisis across the NHS’

  • 2,347 agency nurses worked at least one shift per month at the same trust for more than a year 
  • Longest continuous contract for nursing at one trust was 95 months
  • 19 trusts had at least one worker who had been there for more than 5 years

Picture: Alamy

The ‘unsustainable’ staffing shortage in the NHS is highlighted by newly released figures revealing some trusts are relying on agency staff for months on end.

At least 3,700 staff members have worked at least one shift per month at the same trust for more than a year, including 2,347 nurses and 628 doctors, according to data obtained by the Labour party.

600 agency staff on year-long contracts

One NHS trust had more than 600 members of staff on year-long agency contracts, while 19 trusts had at least one worker who had been there for more than five years.

For nursing, the longest continuous agency contract was 95 months at a trust in the north east of England, followed by 79 months at a mental health trust in London.

The data comes from Freedom of Information requests that were sent to 237 NHS trusts in England, of which 129 provided figures.

In May, Labour asked for details of the number of agency staff working continuously – at least one shift per month – at trusts and the longest an individual agency worker had been working continuously.

Findings include an ambulance trust that had a staff member who had worked at least one agency shift per month for 157 months, while a mental health trust in London said one worker had done so for 126 months.


Commenting on the figures, RCN director of nursing policy and practice Dame Donna Kinnair said reliance on large numbers of agency staff to fill the gaps in the NHS was ‘unsustainable’.

‘Failure to invest in, value and support our workforce has saved no money at all, but the bill for agency staff, recruitment fees and sickness absence through stress climbs ever higher,’ she said.

‘These figures expose the untenable short-staffing crisis across the NHS.

‘Short-sighted NHS workforce planning in recent years has left tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs, to the severe detriment of patient care.

‘Ministers must use the extra £20 billion promised to the NHS to fix this false economy and alleviate the chronic staffing shortages gripping the country.’

‘Dangerously understaffed’

Labour's shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘This government's disastrous inability to plan the NHS workforce has left patients with dangerously understaffed services and left hospitals to rely on expensive agency solutions instead.

‘Short-sighted decisions – including the pay cap and cuts to training and bursaries – have in the long-term ended up costing the NHS billions as hospitals pay thousands of pounds a day to staffing agencies for cover.

‘This reliance on agency workers is unsettling for hospitals and causing uncertainty for patients, who see their continuity of care disrupted.'

Deliver safe services

He added: ‘The government must bring forward a sustainable, long-term workforce plan that gets enough permanent staff in place to deliver safe services for patients.'

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘The latest available figures show the NHS spent over £525 million less on agency staff in 2017-18 compared to the previous year.

‘We are listening to staff and are encouraging flexible working, boosting training places and have given over a million NHS employees a well-deserved pay rise.’

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