NHS trusts across England are increasingly relying on expensive agency staff to fill workforce gaps, with one organisation shelling out as much as £2,500 for a single agency nurse shift.
Analysis by the Labour Party revealed the NHS paid more than £3bn to agencies to provide nurses and doctors at short notice during 2021-22.
This was a 20% increase on the year before, Labour said, when health services paid out £2.4bn.
“Temporary staff have vital roles in providing safe care but they should not be continually used to offset a shortfall in permanent staff”
Further data showed trusts in England also spent £6bn on bank staff in 2021-22.
This takes the total spend on additional staffing to around £9.2bn, according to Labour.
The analysis published last week suggested one in three NHS trusts paid an agency more than £1,000 for a single shift last year, while one in every six paid more than £2,000.
The data, which was collected via Freedom of Information requests, found the most expensive shift was for a nurse paid by Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Swindon, at £2,549.
Meanwhile, it was Medway NHS Trust in Kent that spent the most on agency staff overall, forking out £77m in the last year.
According to NHS England and NHS Improvement, agency prices should be capped at 55% above substantive pay rates, but the data suggests this is not always the case.
The data comes amid record nurse shortages across the NHS in England, with almost 47,000 vacancies, and as many across the profession prepare for strike action over pay in the coming months.
General secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, said the figures represented “yet another sign of short-sighted workforce planning in the NHS”.
“Temporary staff have vital roles in providing safe care but they should not be continually used to offset a shortfall in permanent staff,” she added.
“What makes this even worse is this excessive spending comes out of budgets that pay for patient care and there are still tens of thousands of nursing vacancies.”
Ms Cullen, who looks set to lead the RCN’s first UK-wide strike action, urged the chancellor to take action on nurse pay in his upcoming budget statement this week.
“Nursing and patients deserve better,” she added.
The Labour Party has claimed that, if it was to gain power, it would create 10,000 new nursing and midwifery placements every year and that it would double the number of district nurses qualifying each year. It also vowed to help develop 5,000 new health visitors.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “This is infuriating amounts of money paid to agencies, when patients are waiting longer than ever for treatment.
“Labour will tackle this problem at its root.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “Without a credible long-term workforce plan, the fact that NHS leaders have been backed into a corner and feel they have no other choice but to hire agency staff to plug gaps in rotas is unfortunately utterly inevitable.”
“We have a clear policy to reduce agency spend”
He stressed that amid increasing staff shortages and rising demands, using agency staff was “often the only option to avoid cancelled appointments and operations for patients”.
Responding to the analysis, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have a clear policy to reduce agency spend through capping the hourly pay of agency and temporary staff, ensuring they are only hired through approved NHS agreements to ensure value for money and prioritising NHS staff rather than external agency staff where extra shifts need filling.
“These measures have seen agency spend fall by a third overall between 2016 and 2021.
“We have also commissioned the NHS to develop a long-term workforce plan to help recruit and support NHS staff and we have given over one million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year.”