New figures cited by the Royal College of Nursing suggest that the amount hospitals are paying agency staff is breaking existing guidelines on a very regular basis.
Indeed, the new evidence suggests that this limit is being flouted as often as 50,000 times every week across the NHS as a whole.
The government has previously introduced a cap on sums paid to locum workers, but this can be breached by NHS bosses if they consider that there is “significant risk” to patient safety.
Despite criticism of the figures emerging, the regulator NHS Improvement nonetheless claimed that they had ultimately saved the NHS £300 million already.
Locum staff have proved to be an extremely contentious issue in the NHS, and one that the health service has yet to resolve satisfactorily.
At the time of the new rules taking effect, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said staffing agencies had been able to “rip off the NHS by charging extortionate hourly rates”.
Yet evidence still indicates that the NHS is a seemingly squandering vast amounts of money on agency staff to cover regular employees.
In the first week that the rules first took effect, beginning 23rd November 2015, the clause was used 35,662 times between 228 hospital trusts.
This fell to 21,277 times in the week beginning 28th December.
But since then use has risen, reaching 54,419 uses in the week beginning 4th April 2016 and 53,644 in the week beginning 11th April, According to the latest official figures released by Monitor under the Freedom of Information Act.
Commenting on the figures, Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, suggested that they were a betrayal of her members, and indicated that there were massive recruitment issues to be dealt with in the National Health Service.
“Agency cap breaches are a barometer of the scale of the NHS’s workforce problem, and it shows clearly that the problem is getting worse. NHS Trusts are unable to recruit nurses and are rightly prioritising patient safety over sticking to the cap. This is a workforce planning issue. The number of nurses being trained in the UK has been reduced, for short-term financial reasons.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Improvement suggested the cap had saved up to £300 million since October.
The spokeswoman also suggested that individual trusts are given wriggle room with regard to this issue, and that even official figures can be somewhat misleading.
“We know that trusts will need to override the cap where patient safety is a concern and it’s important that they are able to do that. But as the new rules set in, whilst overrides did increase temporarily, they have begun to steadily decline as we expected.”
But she also acknowledged that the overuse of agency staff is an issue for the NHS, and reiterated her belief that the new regulations will have a positive impact on this issue.
“Overuse of agencies is bad for patients, bad for the NHS and unfair on other staff. These measures will help those staff currently working in agencies to come back into the NHS. Average prices paid for agency nurses have fallen by around 11% since October, so NHS nurses can be assured that their agency colleagues aren’t being paid over the odds for doing the same job.”