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NHS Highland £21m temporary staff costs ‘very worrying’

By Alan Hendry

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Raigmore in Inverness is the biggest hospital in the NHS Highland area.
Raigmore in Inverness is the biggest hospital in the NHS Highland area.

A price tag of more than £21 million for temporary staff drafted in by NHS Highland over the past year has been described as “very worrying” by a far north healthcare campaigner.

The figure emerged after a Freedom of Information request by a Caithness resident. The response from the health board showed that during the financial year 2023/24 it spent £21,404,000 on employing locum or agency clinical staff in medical and dental roles.

The sum continues a trend over recent years. The equivalent costs were £18,967,000 in 2022/23; £13,115,000 in 2021/22; and £11,487,000 in 2020/21.

NHS Highland said this week that it is “working hard to fill permanent positions” while ensuring it has temporary and agency staff to cover gaps. The board pointed out that its ongoing recruitment campaign has managed to fill a number of “hard-to-recruit” posts.

Ron Gunn, chairman of Caithness Health Action Team, said: “It is very worrying that these locum costs are continuing to rise.

“We all know that funds are tight and over £21 million is a lot of money. It is well documented that the use of locums is a very expensive way to provide a service – but, as patients know, some service is better than no service.

“The public are entitled to get the best value for money and I am sure NHS Highland is working hard to reduce the costs associated with locums and I wish them well with that. Hopefully in the future we will see these costs go in a downward direction.”

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: “Staff shortages are one of the challenges faced across the NHS and we are working hard to fill permanent positions as well as ensure we have temporary and agency resource available to cover gaps.

“We do not have a budget for locum/agency spend, and our priority focus is on budget pressures associated with high use and cost of supplementary staffing associated with vacancies in our workforce.

“We have an ongoing recruitment campaign which has successfully filled a number of hard-to-recruit posts, and where possible we use our own permanent or temporary colleagues as they will be more familiar with our settings and processes than agency or locum staff.

“It’s important to note that, whatever basis of employment, all of our colleagues have the required skills, experience, qualifications and training for the role they are filling. We are also continuing with some overseas recruitment and have a number of colleagues already with us or going through our recruitment process.

“Staffing of inpatient services is not the only challenge we face, with lack of staff for onward care and support to allow prompt discharge of patients, as well as physical capacity in our hospitals and the funding available all contributing to pressure.”

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