Health Service £110m Bill For Agency Nursing

A staggering total of £110 million has been spent on agency nursing and midwifery in Northern Ireland in the financial year 2020 to 2021, according to figures revealed by Minister for Health, Robin Swann.

Mr Swann was answering a written assembly question from SDLP Mid-Ulster MLA, Patsy McGlone, which also showed that the cost of hiring agency nursing staff in Belfast Trust alone was more than £45m.

In answering the question the minister said: “Trust expenditure on agency staff has been incurred to ensure that safe and effective services are sustained and contributes importantly to maintaining service provision to patients and clients.”

After Belfast, the next biggest cost was Southern Trust, with a £23,250,772 bill for agency staff, with the South Eastern Trust the lowest expenditure at £9.5m. Mr Swann said that agency staff might be used under several different circumstances.

“Health and Social Care Trusts employ locum staff for several reasons, for example, cover for sickness and maternity/paternity leave; cover for existing vacancies; and when demand increases over the winter months,” he said. “The primary aim of this is to ensure that safe and effective services are sustained at all times for patients and clients.”

The minister added that the Department of Health monitors quarterly expenditure on agency staff across specific staff categories. He went on to say that there is a ministerial effort to recruit directly into the health service.

“The Department is committed to sustained investment in growing the local nursing and midwifery workforce to meet ever increasing demands, for example, this year we have maintained pre-registration nursing and midwifery training places at the record high level of 1,325,” he said.

In answering a subsequent written question from DUP North Down MLA, Alex Easton Mr Swann said that health and social care trusts had 1,805 vacancies across Northern Ireland.

In December 2019 the Royal College of Nursing members went on strike over pay and what they described as unsafe staffing levels. Speaking in December 2020 RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said that the strike was undertaken as their members felt they had little choice.

“While we have seen the commitment to increased numbers of pre-registration nursing students being fulfilled, we have yet to see meaningful progress in relation to safe nurse staffing legislation,” she said. “This was a key point of the agreement that led nursing staff to suspend strike action and cannot be compromised on.”

Ms Cullen said pressures on nursing levels were exacerbated during the pandemic.

“It is not just the case that we have struggled because of the impact of COVID-19. Because we started out in a worse position, it has made it even more difficult to deal with,” she explained.

“We need to do something drastic to keep our experienced nursing staff in the profession and make people want to join. This will only be achieved if we manage to get a fair pay deal for nursing. Right across the UK, we’re seeing nursing staff burnt out and leaving.

“If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s that this needs to change.”


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