Tuesday, December 29, 1998 Published at 15:54 GMT
Agency nurse costs soar in NHS
About 8,000 nurse vacancies need to be filled, says the RCN
The government has come in for criticism over the shortage of nurses in the National Health Service, after new figures revealed a sharp increase in the money paid to agencies who supply staff to cover where there is a lack of personnel.
The cost to the NHS for agency nurses was £216m last year, compared with £121m in 1991-92.
He said the figures highlighted the extent of the recruitment crisis in the health service while the extensive use of private agency staff to plug gaps was draining vital resources from the NHS.
The situation had become so bad, Mr Hughes claimed, that some NHS trusts in Leeds were having to pay private agency nurses to travel from London because they were unable to recruit nurses from the local area.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has already estimated that about 8,000 vacancies exist nationwide for nurses in the NHS.
The NHS was maintaining staffing levels by using an emergency support service as a prop, she said.
She said: "Nursing agencies themselves say they should be seen as an emergency service for the NHS.
"Traditionally hospitals used agency nurses to top up nursing levels, but now they have no alternative but to rely on them day to day to make sure they are adequately staffed.
"To attract nurses back into the NHS they must be paid properly and be able to combine work with family responsibilities."
'Spend money on NHS nurses'
He said: "There are now so few NHS nurses that the private sector is cashing in by filling the vacancies. This is a nonsense. Money must be spent recruiting badly-needed NHS nurses, not paying for private ones.
"Cash-strapped hospital trusts are having to pay private nurses inflated rates to keep wards open.
"After last year's staged pay awards and precious little success in recruiting new nurses, the government is to blame for this situation."
In an earlier warning in October, Mr Hughes said that the number of foreign nurses in the UK could double unless the government increased nurses' pay.
Earlier this month, former health minister Alan Milburn promised an overhaul of NHS pay, but only if next January's recommendations from the pay review bodies stayed within government spending targets.
Professional bodies reacted with anger at the postponement of reform at the time.
A Department of Health spokeswoman acknowledged that there were shortages but said the government was taking steps to recruit and retain more staff.
She highlighted the £50m programme launched in September to encourage former nurses who had left to have children to return to the profession.
"We are addressing the recruiting problem. Clearly that is going to be the only way to bring down the use of agency nurses," she said.