£230m spent on agency staff for under-pressure health service

Jo-anne Dobson MLA said the health service is growing increasingly dependent on astronomically expensive locum staff.
Jo-anne Dobson MLA said the health service is growing increasingly dependent on astronomically expensive locum staff.

Health bosses in Northern Ireland have spent more than £230 million on temporary agency staff over the last five years, it has emerged.

The amount paid out annually to locum workers in the health service has doubled from £31.7m in 2011/12 to £62.2m in 2015/16, according to figures obtained by the Ulster Unionist Party.

And UUP health spokesperson, Jo-Anne Dobson MLA has warned that the local health service is “growing increasingly dependent on astronomically expensive locum staff”.

However, Sinn Féin has accused the UUP of “playing catch up”, claiming the figures “were published weeks ago” as part of the Bengoa report; a 10-year road map aimed at transforming NI’s under-pressure health service.

In a statement, Ms Dobson said: “Whilst I understand some level of agency staff will always be required to fill temporary gaps in the workplace, these figures clearly demonstrate that the spending on agency staff has been spiralling year on year and is now most likely contributing to the local health service’s financial woes.

“The almost 100% increase over the last five years would be alarming in any normal circumstances but it is even more shocking given the absolutely dreadful patient waiting times for which I am repeatedly told a lack of finances is the key contributory factor.”

Ms Dobson obtained the figures via a written question to the Health Minister.

She added: “The Minister urgently needs to realise this growing reliance on bank staff is unsustainable and I would urge her to take long-overdue action to ensure there are sufficient NHS staff in our local hospitals.”

But Sinn Féin MLA and health spokesperson, Catherine Seeley called on the UUP to “stop dilly dallying on health”, adding: “For the UUP to claim they have uncovered the current costs of locums and agency staff raises serious questions about the UUP’s commitment to our health service.

“You have to ask what planet they are living on. These figures and more were published weeks ago in the Bengoa report. The only thing the UUP have revealed is that they have yet to read the most significant report on health in decades.”

DUP health spokesman Jim Shannon MLA said he was “not surprised” by the figures released by the UUP, adding: “There is no long-term vision for the future of the health service in Northern Ireland, only knee jerk responses.”

Last month, Prof Rafael Bengoa – a worldwide expert on health reform –presented a report to the NI Executive, outlining an ambitious health care shake-up for Northern Ireland. Reducing the cost of locum and agency staff is one element of the radical 10-year plan.

Health Minister Michelle O’Neill told the News Letter she was focused on long-term reform of the health service, adding: “My Department is currently developing a workforce strategy to address the issues of retention, recruitment and upskilling of staff.

“I have already invested in providing an additional 100 pre-registration nurse training places from September 2016 and have committed to increasing the number of GP trainees from the current 85 to an annual total of 111 by 2018.

“If the UUP is supporting my reform drive, I’ll be the first to welcome them on board; if not they should set out a credible alternative.”