The government should set a cap on the amount NHS providers can pay for using agency staff during the current nursing shortage, according to a nurse who entered politics to defend the health service.
The call from National Health Action Party spokeswoman Kathryn Anderson followed news yesterday that some trusts were paying almost £150 an hour for temporary staff to fill shifts during public holidays.
Sky News asked hospitals in England how many agency staff they employed on the 5 May bank holiday and at what rates.
“The NHS should be using its ‘purchasing power’ to negotiate a better deal”
The broadcaster highlighted specific examples where trusts were either using high numbers of temporary staff or paying them particularly large sums.
It found around 30% of nurses on duty that day at both Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals Trust and Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals Foundation Trust were from an agency.
Meanwhile, University Hospitals Bristol Foundation Trust paid an agency £1,800 for a 12-hour nursing shift and nearby Taunton and Somerset Foundation Trust paid almost as much for a mental health nurse.
An investigation carried out by Nursing Times in the wake of the Francis report in March 2013 predicted a significant rise in agency spending, as trusts reacted to concerns about safe staffing. This situation has subsequently been made worse by a national shortage of nurses.
Ms Anderson, who has herself worked as an agency nurse, criticised the government for allowing the situation to happen “through its cuts to NHS staff and funding”.
However, she added: “From first-hand experience I know that hospitals do not use agency staff lightly – senior ward staff need to jump through hoops before an agency nurse is allowed.”
Ms Anderson also noted that agencies gave hospitals flexibility to deal with situations such as increased demand and sickness absence.
“The agencies charge a premium for providing this service. In addition to reversing funding cuts and properly staffing the NHS with nurses, the government should consider a cap on the hourly amount an NHS hospital will pay an agency,” she said.
“The NHS should be using its ‘purchasing power’ to negotiate a better deal,” she said, adding that a capping system had been introduced in the Australian state of Victoria in 2002.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We encourage all trusts to maintain a tight grip on their staff costs and we will hold poor performers to account.”