NHS reliance on agency staff ‘puts Yorkshire patients at risk’

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
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THE RELIANCE on agency doctors and nurses is putting patients at the region’s over-stretched hospitals at risk, two local MPs have said.

Labour’s MP for Dewsbury, Paula Sherriff, who sits on the Health Select Committee, said staff morale had to be addressed in order to retain highly qualified NHS staff and reduce the reliance on agency staff.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

“Some agency staff are absolutely wonderful and I would never disparage what they do, but there is clearly a risk with staff that are not familiar with the wards they work on and the policies of that hospital,” she said.

“We need to make sure we are valuing our NHS staff. When they are offering a 1 per cent payrise and staff are working an average of eight extra hours each week, leaving Trusts reliant on goodwill, it is not acceptable.”

Her thoughts were echoed by York Central MP Rachel Maskell, herself a former NHS physiotherapist, who warned that immigration changes, which say migrants from outside of Europe must earn £35,000 if they are allowed to stay after six years in the UK, will further deplete the number of nurses in the NHS.

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This is combined with changes to final salary pension schemes, which have seen many NHS staff choose the convenience of agency working, knowing they can return to the NHS later with the same benefits.

Ms Maskell said: “The workforce is imploding in numbers. The Government needs to invest in training staff and building up a new cohort, but short-term, visa changes need to be seriously reviewed.

“There is very important clinical risk with agency staff, because when it comes to a crisis, you need to have staff working together as a team. When you have different agency staff working each day, that teamwork is not there, and it creates an unsafe situation. There is also resentment when the staff are slogging away, working extra hours, and the agency staff are clocking off on time.”

The Royal College of Nursing’s regional director for Yorkshire and the Humber, Sarah Dodsworth, said long-term workforce planning at a national level was needed.

“Anything less will be selling future generations severely short,” she said.

Cuts to training place, pay restrictions and attacks on terms and conditions had made both retention of staff and recruitment difficult for trust, she said.

“At the same time, Trusts have been increasing staffing levels to cope with the increasing demand, but are being forced to turn to expensive agencies because the nurse numbers simply aren’t there,” she said. “This has brought us to a situation where big trusts like Mid Yorkshire are being forced to spend a large portion of their over-stretched budget on temporary nursing staff.”

Sheffield Children’s trust, which spent four times what it budgeted for on agency staff last year, said it was needed to “ensure on-going, high quality clinical care”.

Tracey McErlain-Burns, chief nurse at Rotherham’s trust, which spent 54 per cent more in 2014/15 than in 213/14, said it had recruited nurses from Romania and Croatia and is continuing to recruit permanent staff.

Mid Yorkshire Hospitals, which saw a £5m rise in spend, said it was committed to having the “right number of nurses and doctors available to provide good quality care” to patients.

York, which saw a 45 per cent increase in spending, has recently recruited more than 100 nurses who will start work in the autumn, but said recruiting in some specialities such as emergency medicine was “increasingly difficult”.

The Department of Health said it is supporting hospital trusts in supporting their staff.

A spokesperson said: “NHS staff are our greatest asset and it’s vital that employers make sure staff get the care they need.

“That’s why we’ve asked NHS Employers to help Trusts to keep their workforce well and NHS England is investing £5m in a new staff health and wellbeing initiative. We are committed to making sure we have enough staff to meet patient needs seven days a week.”

He said there are 8,800 additional NHS doctors than there were in May 2010 when the Conservative-led coalition Government was elected.