A new app is being developed to make it easier for NHS staff to sign up for extra shifts in a bid to claw back the £480m a year being spent on plugging gaps with expensive agency workers.
NHS Improvement today revealed it is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to pilot the fresh technology, as part of a crackdown on agency reliance.
“The reliance on agencies across the health and care system is a sticking plaster solution”
Trusts are being urged to utilise their own bank of staff who have agreed to work flexible shifts when filling vacancies and only use agencies as a last resort.
NHS Improvement said agency staff cost on average 20% more than those employed by the health service and often remained in post for a long period of time. Almost 340 nurses have reportedly worked at trusts for more than two years, it added.
Latest figures from NHS Digital show there are almost 29,000 full-time equivalent vacancies across the NHS in England, including 11,483 registered nurses and midwives.
Savings of £480m a year could be made if trusts took a “bank first approach” to filling these gaps, according to NHS Improvement.
“We want trusts to take a bank first approach, and only use agency staff as a last resort”
The NHS has already cut its spending on agency staff by a third – equivalent to £1.2bn – since NHS Improvement introduced a cap in 2015 that means trusts cannot spend more than 55% above the basic rate for these workers.
In 2017-18, spending on agency nurses fell by 20% due to trusts using more bank staff, as reported earlier this year by Nursing Times.
NHS Improvement has set all trusts in England a target of reducing their agency costs by 17% for the current financial year.
Ian Dalton, chief executive of NHS Improvement, said: “Trusts have made fantastic progress in reducing spending on expensive private agency staff over the last three years. These savings mean more money for other vital NHS services and ensure every penny the NHS spends counts.”
He said: “But there is further progress to be made. Bank staff cost the NHS less than agency staff and could improve a patient’s continuity of care. That is why we want trusts to take a bank first approach, and only use agency staff as a last resort.”
Tom Sandford, director of Royal College of Nursing England, said the NHS Improvement report ignored the “elephant in the room” of thousands of nursing vacancies that forced trusts to use agency workers.
He said: “Years of poor workforce planning, and a failure to encourage more students to study nursing, have left our health and social care system struggling to meet population need.”
“The reliance on agency staff highlighted by NHS Improvement demonstrates the overwhelming need for a comprehensive workforce plan that responds to demand and prioritises recruitment and retention,” Mr Sandford said.
He added: “We need legislation introduced to provide government and employer accountability for staffing levels that ensure safe and effective care.”
The deputy director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, Miriam Deakin, also called for a “comprehensive workforce strategy” to address the staffing problems in the NHS long term.
She said: “The reliance on agencies across the health and care system is a sticking plaster solution for the growing number of vacancies across the NHS and the increase in demand for services.”
Ms Deakin added: “Temporary staff continue to play an important role in the NHS staffing mix, but we urgently need a long-term approach to staffing that is underpinned by a comprehensive workforce strategy.”
Alan Lofthouse, health spokesman for Unison, said care providers could lower their spend on agencies by improving working conditions for staff.
He said: “Many nurses make the tough choice to leave the NHS due to workload and pressure. While agency working can offer the individual a better choice over shifts, it is more expensive to the NHS.
“To reduce agency spend, employers need to address working conditions so they retain their staff and reduce absences caused by fatigue and stress,” Mr Lofthouse added.