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Caithness health action group in call for an end to locum system

By Gordon Calder

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Bill Fernie of Caithness Health Action Team says 'something radical' needs to be done.
Bill Fernie of Caithness Health Action Team says 'something radical' needs to be done.

A CALL has been made to end the practice of covering health staff shortages with locums after it was claimed NHS Highland spends over £20 million a year trying to plug gaps in the service.

The plea came from Bill Fernie, chairman of Caithness Health Action Team, who said such "huge costs" must impact on patients in the far north and elsewhere.

He said "something radical" needs to be done to deal with the problem and suggested ending the locum system. Mr Fernie thinks the practice should be stopped on a UK basis by a specific date and claims that could result in locums applying for posts that are vacant.

At present, he said, they can get lucrative salaries by taking on locum work.

"It has been getting worse and worse over the last three years and I feel we are on a slippery slope if this issue is not addressed," Mr Fernie said. "We are doomed if we go down that road. The private sector is supplying staff at great cost, and that is not efficient and is not good for patients who lose the continuity they get with permanent staff.

It has been getting worse and worse and I feel we are on a slippery slope if this issue is not addressed.

"NHS Highland has huge budget issues and a big part of that is locum costs which must impact on what is available for patient care."

He accepts the health authority has recruitment issues but does not think getting locum cover and staff from agencies is the answer. "I think something radical needs to be done and I would suggest ending the locum system in the UK," he said.

Mr Fernie spoke out today after it emerged that NHS Highland spends over £20 million annually to cover staff shortages.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said figures show the health board spent £1,823,976 on payroll locums and £8,839,405 on agency locums, while £9,117,823 was spent on bank and relief staff and £2,555,851 on agency staff.

He raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament and asked what action is being taken to assist the health authority.

Health secretary Jeane Freeman stressed the number of medical and dental staff in NHS Highland had increased by 55.2 per cent between 2006 and 2019.

"NHS Highland continues to focus on reducing both the cost of locums and their reliance on them," she said. "Ongoing actions taken by the board include a weekly control meeting, ongoing cost improvement programme... continuing work to permanently recruit to permanent posts, including offering flexible working and alternative roles to encourage doctors in particular to work in NHS Highland, and they have also been engaged with a medical recruitment agency focusing on international recruitment to vacant posts across NHS Highland."

Ms Freeman said in the last quarter the vacancy rate in NHS Highland decreased to 11.7 per cent while the number of longer-term vacancies of six months or more decreased by 7.4 per cent.

A spokesman for NHS Highland said the health secretary's comments "reflect NHS Highland's position".

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