Unions have warned that rules for caps on nurse and midwife agency spending released today must not risk patient safety and should be looked at alongside other workforce issues rather than in isolation from them.
Both the Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Midwives acknowledged the “essential” effort being made by regulators Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority to try and bring down trusts’ agency bill – which reached £3.3bn last year.
But they called for more to be done to both address the shortage of qualified staff and to boost the number of bank workers.
Monitor and the TDA today wrote to all NHS provider chief executives to give them individual ceilings for the proportion of nursing expenditure their trusts can spend with temporary staffing agencies. These come into force from 1 October.
However, price caps on the hourly rate the NHS can pay agency nurses may not take effect until December.
“These rules cannot get in the way of hospitals securing staff through agencies at short notice if they are essential to meet patient need”
The RCN’s chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said it was “crucial” the plans did not risk patient safety, especially at times when staff were required at short notice.
She also said trusts should not see the introduction of the new rules just as a way of saving money, but instead should focus their efforts on creating more permanent posts.
Alongside the rules, Ms Davies called for the NHS’s bank staff scheme to be improved to offer more incentives to workers, by introducing better rates and conditions for workers.
“These rules cannot get in the way of hospitals securing staff through agencies at short notice if they are essential to meet patient need. Safe staffing levels should be the top priority for any care setting,” she said.
“If patient safety remains the utmost priority, these plans could have a lasting impact on hospital finances – and ultimately patient care. The NHS should work as one to make these proposals a reality, while ensuring staffing levels do not suffer as a consequence,” she added.
Meanwhile, the RCM’s director of policy, Jon Skewes, called for “an effective and sustainable solution, not a sticking plaster”.
He said Monitor and the TDA had been put in an “impossible” position by looking at agency staffing in isolation from other workforce issues.
“The government need to understand that one of the reasons for the spiralling cost of agency spending is because of their ongoing pay policy”
Mr Skewes noted there was a shortage of 2,600 midwives in England and said the solution to reducing agency spend was recruiting more permanent staff in the long term.
He also claimed that improving pay rates for permanent staff would help to bring down agency spend.
“The government need to understand that one of the reasons for the spiralling cost of agency spending is because of their ongoing pay policy.
“The cost of paying huge fees to agencies dwarfs the cost of paying a fair pay rise to hard working midwives and maternity support workers and other NHS staff. The solution to this problem is valuing NHS staff,” he said.