The extent to which the NHS is dependent on Umbrella Company Employees and other contracting professionals to maintain patient safety has been brought home by new research from healthcare recruitment agency MSI Group. The study reveals that agency staffing pay caps imposed by the Government have dismally failed to reduce “off-framework” spending in the health service, with 96 per cent of NHS Trusts finding they have no choice but to breach new spending guidelines.
MSI Group sent Freedom of Information requests to each Acute and Mental Health Trust in England. The data study reveals that 79 per cent of these Trusts have been forced to recruit staff outside NHS-approved staffing frameworks, while 90 per cent have had no choice but to exceed the recently introduced pay caps.
Although Monitor Guidelines decree that Trusts may only recruit through agencies listed on NHS-approved frameworks and that they may not pay locums over 55 per cent above substantive pay levels, Trusts are nonetheless being forced to use a clause that permits them to breach guidelines should patient safety otherwise be put at risk and no alternative is available.
This clause has been used to fill more than 70,000 shifts since 23rd November last year, when the caps were summarily imposed.
Off-framework agencies are not governed by the rigorous compliance audits that “on-framework” agencies are obliged to complete to retain their approved status, and they can also set their own commission and hourly rates. Currently, 288 agencies supply the sector, but 45 per cent of them are off-framework. This, in fact, represents an improvement on last year’s total, when 60 per cent of the agencies used were off-framework.
MSI Group’s CEO, Nick Simpson, said: “This research highlights the extent to which NHS Trusts are being forced to break Monitor guidelines in an effort to protect patient safety.”
He went on to explain that the sector had been making good progress toward sustainable pay rates when the original guidelines barring off-framework spending were introduced in October last year. However, Trusts were not given enough time to proceed with this progress before new pay caps were “hastily rushed in shortly after.”
He described contracting and agency staff as “a vital asset” for managing increased need – professionals who do not have to be associated with the “crippling” costs of off-framework agencies. Strategic workforce planning, he said, was a vital tool for managing the ongoing NHS staffing crisis.
Simpson added: “Any professional working within the healthcare arena will recognise that the staffing crisis is a sizeable problem in the NHS. But what’s become increasingly clear is that these issues have been compounded rather than alleviated by new guidelines introduced by Jeremy Hunt.”