A group of acute trusts in the North West has been paying critical care nurses band 8 wages for standard shifts, in an effort to lure them away from agency work and back to the NHS.
The group of five trusts agreed to match bank pay rates with agency wages following a review, which found the majority of critical care rota gaps were being filled by agency nurses.
“Where we have increased pay we have been clear we are doing this as an interim measure”
It meant increasing the bank pay rate for critical care from band 5.3 to band 8, said Jay Patel, head of client relations at health service bank staff provider NHS Professionals. The move was “still cheaper” than getting in agency staff, because the trusts were not paying agency fees, she told delegates at a safe staffing conference in London.
The strategy, which also involved capping agency fees, has seen a dramatic shift in critical care staffing. Reliance on agency workers has been cut by half, with a more than 50% reduction in agency charges since October last year.
However, Ms Patel admitted the process had also been painful when agencies refused to play ball. She said one of the trusts – Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – had “cancelled theatres for two weeks” because of staffing issues.
Nevertheless, she told the audience of senior nurses it was vital to “hold your nerve and stay strong” in negotiations with staffing agencies.
The trusts have been working together as part of the Agency Partner Programme set up NHS Professionals in 2012 in an effort to address soaring spending on agency staff.
Together with Central Manchester, the consortium is made up of Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, University Hospitals of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust and Tameside Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
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Ms Patel said encouraging more nurses to work for the NHS bank instead of agencies was a key element in wider workforce reform.
But staffing leads at the conference on Tuesday said they feared that ramping up bank pay might encourage some nurses – such as those from other European countries – to just work for the bank rather than remaining in permanent posts.
However, Ms Patel stressed the increase in bank pay rates in the North West was a temporary strategy and went alongside a campaign to encourage nurses to see the wider benefits of returning to the NHS.
“Where we have increased pay we have been clear we are doing this as an interim measure and rates will be brought down,” she told the Safe Staffing Summit run by Healthcare Conferences UK.
Figures from NHS Professionals show towards the end of 2015 nearly three quarters – up to 72% – of requests for critical care nurses across the five organisations were being fulfilled by agencies. But by March this year that was down to 34%.
The overall number of critical care shifts left unfilled also dropped from 19% in September 2015 to just 4% in March this year.
The figures showed a 54% reduction in agency charges in five months – equivalent to mean annual savings of about £815,000.
“Hold your nerve and stay strong”
Meanwhile, the change has encouraged more nurses to sign up to the NHS bank, including some who were doing agency work in the region alongside their substantive posts at the five trusts.
The overall number signed up increased by nearly 20%. There was about a 5% increase in bank only workers, while the number of “multi-postholders” registered on the bank increased nearly 40% from 5,656 in the six months up to July 2015 to 7,688 in the six months up to March this year.
Ms Patel said the pay matching scheme had proved so successful that the consortium was looking at doing the same for general nurses.
While agency pay had only been matched for critical care, she said use of bank versus agency staff had actually increased across all staff groups because of the wider campaign to promote NHS work.
She maintained the NHS bank had “lost its mojo over the last 10 years, so it is about reminding the workforce and making sure people understand the NHS is the place to work”.
This included ensuring staff were aware of the percentages taken by agencies. She said many nurses were angry when they learned how much trusts paid for agency shifts over and above their wages and preferred to see that money invested in the health service.
She said the vast majority also preferred working “in their own organisations”, rather than having to go to another nearby hospital to do agency work.