NHS spend on agency staff is slashed by £300 million

Too much emphasis on savings and not enough on safety, say campaigners

Spending on agency staff in the NHS has been reduced from an estimated £4 billion to £3.7 billion in the last six months after the introduction of caps on agency spending. But campaigners say safe staffing levels in the health service are ‘beyond tipping point’.

NHS Improvement, which supports NHS and foundation trusts to deliver financially sustainable care, says that the average price paid for a nursing shift has dropped by 10%.

The organisation’s chief executive Jim Mackey said: ‘Dramatically reducing the amount of money hospitals spend on agency staff is a key part of our plan to balance the books. We need to keep up the pressure and make sure the era of overreliance on agency staff comes to an end.’

NHS Improvement praised Hounslow and Richmond Community Healthcare NHS Trust for reducing price cap overrides by 80% and Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has introduced an online tool to improve visibility of bank and agency staff usage. 

But Safe Staffing Alliance chair Susan Osborne, said: ‘There has been totally insufficient recognition and planning to train sufficient doctors and registered nurses. We have gone beyond the tipping point and this is why we have real problems in providing services because there are insufficient staff to do so. There is too much emphasis on financial savings and not enough on the safety of services.’

During a debate in Parliament this week, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the cap on agency spending should save £1 billion this year.

But shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander said: ‘The secretary of state’s attempts to deal with the symptoms of the problem but not the cause has left hospitals struggling to get staff at rates they are allowed to pay.’

Following the debate, Labour health spokesperson Justin Madders said cuts to nurse training places have left hospital wards ‘dangerously understaffed and forced NHS bosses to drain resources on extortionate agency staff’.