Ministers must “bring forward” a sustainable, long term workforce plan for the NHS that reduces reliance on expensive agency workers, according to the Labour Party.
Figures gathered by Labour using Freedom of Information requests has suggested the NHS has spent at average of £2.9bn a year on agency staff since 2012.
“The government must bring forward a sustainable, long term workforce plan”
The party said its research had also revealed that there were NHS workers stuck on agency contracts for years on end.
With a large number of vacancies across the NHS, hospitals were having to pay thousands of pounds a day to staff agencies to cover shifts, it said.
The FOI data showed that at least 3,700 staff have been on an agency contract at one trust for over a year, which includes 2,347 nurses.
For nursing, the longest continuous agency contract was 95 months at a trust in the North East of England, followed by 79 months at a mental health trust in London.
Earlier this year, a report by academics calculated that trusts in England were spending £1.46bn a year on agency and bank nurse shifts in order to plug gaps in permanent nursing staff, in spite of ongoing pressure from the government to reduce spendingon temporary workers.
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Labour also revealed today that trusts have more than one in 10 staff who are long term agency workers and found NHS staff working agency at the same employer for more than a decade.
As the new figures highlight the extent of the NHS’s continued reliance on temporary workers, Labour warned that scarce NHS resources were being wasted on expensive agency costs.
The party said it believed the results showed government decisions, including the recently lifted cap on pay rises and cuts to training, had cost the NHS billions in the long run.
“Reliance on large numbers of agency staff to fill the gaps in the NHS is unsustainable”
Labour health spokesman Justin Madders said: “This 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.”
Mr Madders described the reliance on agency workers as “unsettling for hospitals” and claimed it caused “uncertainty for patients who see their continuity of care disrupted”.
He added: “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,” he said.
“The government must bring forward a sustainable, long term workforce plan that gets enough permanent staff in place to deliver safe services for patients,” he stated.
In November last year, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans for a new national workforce strategy designed to help secure the long-term supply of nurses and doctors for the NHS.
He suggested the plan – to be developed by Health Education England – would draw together all the current staffing initiatives, such as nursing associates and apprenticeships.
Meanwhile, his successor Matt Hancock has pledged to launch a consultation exercise across a range of issues facing the health service workforce.
Specifically, he said it would consider issues such as bullying and harassment in the workplace, diversity and how to establish more pathways for nurses and other clinicians into leadership roles.
Donna Kinnair, director of nursing policy and practice at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Reliance on large numbers of agency staff to fill the gaps in the NHS is unsustainable.
“Failure to invest in, value and support our workforce has saved no money at all, but the bill for agency staff, recruitment fees and sickness absence through stress climbs ever higher,” she said.
“These figures expose the untenable short staffing crisis across the NHS,” she said. “Short-sighted NHS workforce planning in recent years has left tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs, to the severe detriment of patient care.
Dame Donna Kinnair
She added: “Ministers must use the extra £20bn promised to the NHS to fix this false economy and alleviate the chronic staffing shortages gripping the country.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The latest available figures show the NHS spent over £525m less on agency staff in 2017-18 compared to the previous year.
“We are listening to staff and are encouraging flexible working, boosting training places and have given over a million NHS employees a well-deserved pay rise.”
The department noted that NHS Improvement, in partnership with NHS Employers, had launched a major programme in July 2017 to improve staff retention in trusts across England.
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As revealed by Nursing Times, initial results from the national retention programme showed clinical staff turnover had reduced by 0.5% over three months among a group of 14 mental health trusts taking part.
Meanwhile, among 21 acute and community NHS trusts also taking part in the first wave of the programme, the rate at which nurses are leaving their employer has reduced by 0.1% over the same period – from 16.2% to 16.1%.