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NHS agency nursing crackdown 'could undermine safety'

January 29, 2016

A government scheme to reduce the amount of agency workers filling NHS posts could be having a damaging effect on overall safety standards.

This is according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which has suggested that the government's stance on this issue could be exacerbating the worrying skills shortage that is undermining the quality of NHS services.

Originally announced last year, the aim of the push is minimise the health service's reliance on staffing agencies, particularly in highly-paid management roles, with the aim of reducing NHS spending by one billion pounds over three years.

NHS expenditure on agency staff accounted for 2.9  per cent of the its overall annual spending in 2014/15, a percentage that the government wishes to reduce in order to free up more money for frontline care.

Subsequently, the Department of Health revealed earlier this month that hospital spending on management consultants has fallen sharply, dropping from £145 million in July to September 2014 to £103 million pounds in the same period in 2015.

However, the REC has suggested the impact of this is also being felt on the frontline. According to its research, 73 per cent of healthcare recruiters say the restrictions have made it more difficult to find doctors and nurses willing to fill temporary vacancies, with eight in ten agencies only able to fill up to half the requests they receive from NHS trusts.

It was also shown that 80 per cent of recruiters supplied staff to the NHS on Christmas Day, rising to 85 per cent on Boxing Day and 85 per cent on New Year's Eve, highlighting the NHS's continued dependence on agency doctors and nurses to operate effectively.

A fresh round of centrally-imposed spending restrictions are set to come into effect on Monday February 1st, which will reduce the health service's access to agency workers further still. Indeed, two-thirds of agencies surveyed by the REC said they are planning to engage less with the NHS in future, turning their attentions instead to supplying staff to the private healthcare sector.

This could have substantial knock-on effects for the quality and safety of care provided by the NHS, which has repeatedly acknowledged the importance of sufficient staffing levels as a foundation of effective care.

A lack of workers will make it harder for hospitals to cope with demand, increasing the risk of patients receiving substandard treatment and of workers falling prey to accidents such as needlestick injuries.

REC chief executive Kevin Green said: "It's no surprise that fewer skilled doctors and nurses are willing to work for the NHS when their pay has been cut. Meanwhile, the NHS is more reliant than ever on hardworking recruiters and the healthcare professionals they supply to maintain safe staffing levels.

"We warned the government that rushing in these caps would exacerbate the staffing crisis faced by the NHS and that is exactly what is happening. Experienced doctors and nurses are choosing to work for private healthcare providers, seeking opportunities abroad, or changing careers altogether to maintain their salary and flexibility."

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