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Safe staffing: soaring nurse vacancy levels leave NHS counting the cost of agency cover

Reliance on agency staff is unsustainable, admits government in Northern Ireland
Nurses fill in ward chart showing staffing levels

Reliance on agency staff is unsustainable, admits government in Northern Ireland

Dwindling nurse numbers result in millions of pounds being spent by the NHS on agency nurses in Northern Ireland.

A Northern Ireland Audit Office report , revealed 2,114 permanent nursing posts were vacant in 2018/2019 and nurse agency fees cost the NHS 115 million. This was in contrast to 2012, when there were 445 nurse vacancies.

Reliance of agency staff results in soaring costs, and compromises care

High vacancy rates in the profession have led to an increase in agency spending, with the audit highlighting how on one occasion the NHS paid 1,700 for a single nursing bank holiday shift.

To ensure safe staffing levels, the report said an additional 1,600 nurses are needed.

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly said: The reliance on temporary nurses,

Reliance on agency staff is unsustainable, admits government in Northern Ireland


Picture: Guzelian 

Dwindling nurse numbers result in millions of pounds being spent by the NHS on agency nurses in Northern Ireland.   

A Northern Ireland Audit Office report, revealed 2,114 permanent nursing posts were vacant in 2018/2019 and nurse agency fees cost the NHS £115 million. This was in contrast to 2012, when there were 445 nurse vacancies.

‘Reliance of agency staff results in soaring costs, and compromises care’

High vacancy rates in the profession have led to an increase in agency spending, with the audit highlighting how on one occasion the NHS paid £1,700 for a single nursing bank holiday shift. 

To ensure safe staffing levels, the report said an additional 1,600 nurses are needed.

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly said: ‘The reliance on temporary nurses, particularly agency staff, has not only resulted in soaring costs, it can also compromise the quality and safety of patient care as staff are deployed in less familiar clinical settings.’


Pat Cullen of RCN Northern Ireland

Audit is a vindication of nurses’ strike action – RCN

RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said the audit showed why nurses took strike action in December 2019 and January 2020.

The strikes were part of a call for NHS nurses in Northern Ireland to receive pay parity with counterparts in England and for safe staffing levels to be implemented.

‘Put simply, we do not have the right number of nurses to provide all of the care the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve,’ Ms Cullen said.

Ms Cullen added that while the RCN recognised that a safe staffing framework has been published, work on legislation must begin now.

Use of nurse agencies use ‘necessary to maintain stretched services’

A Northern Ireland Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘While the use of agency staff is necessary to maintain stretched services, the department fully accepts that the increasing expenditure is unsustainable.'

The department did not comment on the timing of safe staffing legislation.


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