It’s no secret that the NHS has been suffering from staffing problems, and headline stories detailing the sums of money that have gone towards paying locums, agency staff and those filling short-term positions have been making the headlines for months. When Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced new rules which would change the way NHS spends money on staffing, his references to staffing agencies ‘ripping off the NHS’ may have sounded like a clarion call for change.
However, whilst it may make a good headline to blame agencies for the problems in the NHS, as always, it’s not as simple as agencies setting their prices too high or trying to take advantage of the system. Medical staff have criticised Mr Hunt’s plans, claiming that it is underfunding that is responsible for the staffing problems suffered by the NHS. The Royal College of Nursing’s Chief Executive agrees that short-term staffing problems are costing the NHS a lot of money but also believes that this is a symptom of the lack of investment in nurse training.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation have responded to Mr Hunt’s accusations, defending their members and pointing out that the problems in the NHS are not the responsibility of the agencies or the staff who are working within the system.
Tom Hadley, the Director of Policy at the REC is outraged at the accusations levelled at health care recruiters, pointing out that without agency nurses, staffing ratios would not be manageable and patient care would suffer. Mr Hadley believes that the Health Secretary is scapegoating agencies when the real problem is management and workforce planning within the NHS.
Whilst the REC agrees that set pricing for agency staff could be a beneficial move, he also points out that these levels already exist within the NHS framework agreements. Mr Hadley is concerned that bringing in new rules at this stage could be an unworkable solution to a problem that stems from the inherent problems associated with ongoing staff shortages.
In his statement, Mr Hadley described his disappointment at the lack of consultation on the part of the Department of Health over the proposed changes. He is also concerned that there will be problems reconciling these plans with the legal responsibility that the NHS has to maintain staffing ratios. His worries could be confirmed if a sudden change in weather or an epidemic could call for sharp increases in staffing in areas where the agency staff budget may already have been spent.
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