MILLIONS of pounds have been spent on agency staff to fill shortages in St Helens and Knowsley hospitals in recent years.

Analysis by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has revealed that hospitals in England spent a total of £3.2bn between 2020 and 2022 to cover gaps in rotas and keep wards open.

The analysis, which comes from Freedom of Information requests to each NHS Trust across the country, reveals that St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals spent more than £15m on agency staff in the three-year period.

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St Helens Star: St Helens Hospital, on Marshalls Cross RoadSt Helens Hospital, on Marshalls Cross Road (Image: Stock)
The St Helens and Knowsley Trust, which now operates as the Mersey and West Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Trust, spent £5.9m of this sum on registered nurses and £925k on healthcare support workers in 2022.

This is an increase from £3m and £4.8m spent on registered nurses in 2020 and 2021, as well as a rise from £17k and £204k spent on healthcare support workers in 2020 and 2021.

Across the country, the RCN states that three-quarters of NHS vacancies could be filled if the £3.2b had been redirected to hiring permanent staff, and suggested that this money could have covered the salaries of more than 30,000 full-time staff or by training more than 86,000 nurses. 

The government says the figures on agency staff are impacted by "additional pressures and staff sickness rates" during the pandemic, although the RCN argues that they are down to "poor government planning and underfunding of the NHS".

St Helens Star: The RCN say the sum could have been directed towards hiring full-time employeesThe RCN say the sum could have been directed towards hiring full-time employees (Image: PA)
Royal College of Nursing Chief Nurse Professor Nicola Ranger, said: "Ministers have got their priorities wrong – forcing trusts to squander billions on agency staff while they provide miserly funding for fair pay and nurse education.

“With cuts to nurse education and maintaining unfair pay levels, ministers are choosing to spend the money on much higher private agency bills instead, this is yet another false economy when it comes to NHS spending.

“This should act as a wake-up call. The government must give nursing staff and patients the investment and respect they deserve. Not acting now will mean even more patients on waiting lists and the crisis in the nursing workforce deepening further.”

Commenting on the figures, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson added: “These statistics cover the Covid pandemic when the NHS was under huge additional pressure and staff sickness rates were exceptionally high.

“While temporary staffing allows the NHS to meet fluctuations in demand, we are controlling spending by capping hourly pay and prioritising NHS staff when shifts need filling.  

“We have recruited more than 50,000 extra nurses compared to 2019 – hitting our target early – and the Long Term Workforce plan is ensuring the NHS has the staff it needs over the next 15 years so that patients continue to receive the best possible care.”