Swann Welcomes Progress on Tackling Health Agency Costs

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Swann Welcomes Progress on Tackling Health Agency Costs

Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim Robin Swann has welcomed the progress that has been made on clamping down on some of the most expensive agency costs in the local health service.

The Department of Health has confirmed that Trusts reported a reduction in the use of the costly “off-Framework” nursing agencies from 72% prior to May 2023 to only 1.5% in July 2023. Off-contract agencies are typically much more expensive than their on-contract counterparts as the rates they charge are not limited by the health service; therefore, the amounts charged per shift are often significantly higher.

Robin Swann said, “Whilst I accept there will likely always be a need for some agency workers across the health service, not least to cover for periods of sickness absence, for instance, very shortly after I was appointed Minister of Health, I realised that the level and trajectory of agency expenditure locally was totally unsustainable.

“Instead of recruiting sufficient numbers of staff into permanent posts, or going to enough efforts to retain the staff they already had, all five Health Trusts across Northern Ireland were increasingly relying on simply filling staffing shortfalls with agency workers. What concerned me most was the apparent willingness of the Trusts to spend often enormous sums of public money on the most expensive form of staffing whilst failing to recognise the huge damage that was being caused to overall staff morale in the process.

“For instance, in the three years from 2018/19 to 2021/22, annual expenditure on off-contract agency nursing staffing jumped from £27.0m to a massive £101m. With almost three quarters of all agency spend for nurses coming from the much more expensive off-contract companies, it had become a daily reality that agency nurses in hospitals were being paid much greater sums of money for the exact same shift and the exact same work compared to the centrally employed health service nurses on the exact same hospital wards.

“That is why I instructed the Department of Health to do something about it. I told them I expected greater efforts to build up our own NHS workforce, and importantly I made it clear that I expected to see measures taken to move towards permanently ending the use of the most expensive type of agency staff. In the meantime, I also ensured that all Health Trusts were told they needed to start making savings from the money they were expecting to spend on agency workers.

“I am really pleased with the progress that has now been made. I am concerned, however, that the ongoing absence of an Executive and clear political leadership will soon see the pace of that progress slow down. At the time I announced the plans to tackle agency spend, I also made it clear that it was going to run in parallel with ongoing initiatives to build and support the health service workforce.

“Yet regrettably, rather than maintaining nursing/midwifery university places, the Department of Health has since been forced to cut them due to the ongoing political and budgetary situation.”