The Royal College of Nursing has condemned a rise in agency spending in Northern Ireland, after newly released figures showed one agency alone had tripled its income in three years.
Spending on all nursing agencies in Northern Ireland last year was £32.1m, a rise of 36% on the previous year. One agency in particular – Scottish Nursing Guild – has come in for special scrutiny due to the higher cost of its nurses.
“That situation should never have been allowed to develop”
The devolved nation’s five health trusts spent £11.5m in combined fees to SNG in 2017-18, up from £3.8m in 2015-16 – an almost 200% rise. The SNG figures were obtained by the BBC after Freedom of Information requests were made to all five trusts.
SNG made up more than a third of Northern Ireland’s agency spend and is believed to be one of the UK’s highest paying nursing agencies, with some nurses paid up to £60 an hour, according to reports.
In contrast, Northern Ireland has the lowest paid staff nurses in the UK, typically earning between £11.21 and £16.05 per hour, equating to roughly £22,000 to £31,000 per year.
A breakdown shows that the highest spender on SNG nurses was the Northern Trust on £4.2m. Only one trust, South Eastern, has cut its spending on SNG nurses in the past year.
“Maintaining services with safe staffing levels occasionally requires us to use higher-cost agency staff”
Health department spokeswoman
The Royal College of Nursing condemned the increase in agency spending in Northern Ireland.
“Many nurses now find themselves in a position where they’re working alongside someone doing the same work but earning vastly different sums,” the RCN’s Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth told the BBC.
“We heard today from a nurse who was working for £14 an hour alongside another nurse doing the same work for £60 an hour through an agency,” said Ms Smyth.
“That situation should never have been allowed to develop, but it’s here and the only way out of it is to pay our nurses properly, train more nurses – as we’re doing – and to make sure the pressures on the workforce are reduced,” she added.
Cost-saving measures by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health had only had the reverse effect, Ms Smyth said.
She said: “This situation has been developing for a number of years and it goes way back to when we started to reduce the number of nurses that we were training here and that was compounded by short-term cost saving measures which froze vacancies and slowed recruitment.”
A spokeswomen for Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said that there were many reasons why trusts used agency nurses. However, she recognised it was only a short-term fix.
“Increasing agency and locum costs are not sustainable, particularly at a time of serious financial pressures right across the public sector,” she said.
The Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy 2026 published by the Department in May set out ambitious goals for “tackling serious challenges with supply, recruitment and retention of staff”, she said.
“In the meantime, maintaining services with safe staffing levels occasionally requires us to use higher-cost agency staff,” the spokeswoman said.
Last November, Northern Ireland’s health regulator, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, issued a formal notice warning of a nursing shortage.