Some temporary agency workers have been found to be working for the NHS for more than a decade at a time, in the process wasting limited health service resources, new research has found.
A series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests from the Labour Party found that trusts have been using agency staff – who are substantially more expensive than permanent workers — for months and in many cases years on end even though their use is supposed to be limited as a stop-gap measure to address staff shortages.
Since 2012-2013, the NHS has spent nearly £17bn on agency staff, which amounts to £2.3bn each year.
Of the 129 trusts which responded to the FoI requests, one trust had at least 3700 agency workers working for longer than a year, including 628 doctors and 2347 nurses. The same trust had 6887 staff on agency contracts working for over six months and 11762 staff on agency contracts for over three months.
Seven trusts said they had more than 100 staff on year-long agency contracts, while three trusts said the equivalent of more than 10 per cent of their workforce were on three-month agency contracts.
Most shockingly of all, it was revealed that an ambulance trust had employed a worker on continuous agency shifts for 157 months – or 13 years. Another mental health trust reported employing an agency worker for 126 months, or more than 10 years.
19 trusts revealed they had employed at least one staff member on an agency contract for longer than five years.
Labour’s research is published just as the massive staffing crisis in nursing has been laid bare. Figures from the NHS out last month showed that vacancies for nurses and midwives have increased by a fifth at the end of last year compared to two years before – in 2017, there were more than 133,660 vacant posts.
As the number of vacancies has risen, the number of applications over the same time period has dropped by more than 12 per cent.
Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders said that it was the 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,” he added.
“This reliance on agency workers is unsettling for hospitals and causing uncertainty for patients who see their continuity of care disrupted. What’s more there is a big human impact for staff who are expected to carry out unpredictable shifts, often at short notice for months on end.
“It should be a priority for the new Health Secretary to sort this out but instead we know that a workforce strategy has been repeatedly delayed and in fact Theresa May decided to leave health education out of her long term funding deal for the NHS.
“The government must bring forward a sustainable, long term workforce plan that gets enough permanent staff in place to deliver safe services for patients.”
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe agreed.
“The NHS will only wean itself off its dependence on agency staff solutions if it properly invests in its workforce,” he said. “Health workers go on to work for agencies often because of the flexibility it affords. We have to remember that 75 per cent of the NHS workforce are women, many of whom tend have caring duties so introducing genuine flexible working arrangements would go a long way in retaining NHS workers.
“Despite the recent pay offer, NHS workers have suffered a decade of real-terms erosion of their pay. If we want to attract more people into nursing and other health professions we must ensure that wages increase substantially in the coming years to undo the pay freeze damage and to reflect the value of these jobs that are critical to the health of the nation, “he added. “Scrapping nursing bursaries was a massively misguided decision by this Tory government that has only further exacerbated the staffing crisis – it’s a decision that should be reversed immediately.”
Jarrett-Thorpe went on to highlight the implications Brexit would have on the NHS staffing crisis.
“A substantial proportion of the NHS workforce is from the EU, and research has shown that since the referendum, many EU health workers have left the UK,” he noted. “Confusion over regularising present EU nationals’ status as UK residents as Brexit approaches will mean this exodus will likely continue, while fewer new EU migrants will come to the UK post-Brexit as well.”
“The staffing crisis that forces the NHS to rely on agency staff is purely of the government’s own making – eight years of the Tories smashing the NHS will require many, many years to repair. There’s simply no quick fix solution at this stage but we can start with long-term workforce planning and investment.”