Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the cost of agency and contract staff across the entire NHS in England last year was £3.3 billion. On one occasion, an agency nurse cost the NHS £2,200 for a 12-hour shift, and a doctor £3,700 for a 30-hour shift, with more than half of the money going in some instances to the agency.
Hunt said: “Expensive staffing agencies are quite simply ripping off the NHS. It's outrageous that taxpayers are being taken for a ride by companies charging up to £3,500 a shift for a doctor.”
"The NHS is bigger than all of these companies, so we'll use that bargaining power to drive down rates and beat them at their own game."
Hunt also pledged to clamp down on a growing practice of hiring expensive management consultants, which cost the NHS nearly £600 million last year. A cap of £50,000 will be applied to all management consultancy contracts. Any Trust needing to exceed this for clinical reasons will have to get permission from the regulator, Monitor, or the Trust Development Authority.
The pay packets of some NHS senior managers will also be reduced. Currently more than a fifth of all directors in the NHS earn more than £142,500 – the amount the prime minister is paid.
Some have welcomed the announcements, but cautioned that the measures must be supported by an increase in permanent employees.
Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "This will only work alongside longer-term solutions, such as converting agency staff to permanent staff, and continuing to increase training places to catch up with demand."
Unite head of health Barrie Brown said: “Unite wants the agency bill slashed and permanent nursing staff and other health professionals employed with proper training and development in place, coupled with robust recruitment and retention policies.”
Others have blamed mismanagement of the NHS for its reliance on spiralling agency costs in the first place.
Andy Burnham, Labour's shadow health secretary, stated: "The decision to cut 6,000 nursing posts in the early years of the last parliament, alongside big reductions in nurse training places, has left the NHS in the grip of private staffing agencies. The Tory government is responsible for this monumental waste of NHS resources."
Meanwhile Recruitment and Employment Confederation director of policy Tom Hadley said the importance of agency staff in supporting the NHS shouldn’t be overlooked.
“The language and tone from Jeremy Hunt is outrageous,” he said. “Agency nurses play a vital role in ensuring safe staffing ratios and quality patient care in an NHS that cannot find sufficient permanent staff. He is scapegoating agencies for the NHS’s own mismanagement of workforce planning.”
He added that an approved pricing framework already exists. “Nobody objects to there being set parameters for pricing of agency staff, but they already exist in the form of NHS framework agreements.
“We are disappointed that the Department of Health has not consulted around the introduction of these new rules, and await more detail about exactly how it proposes to reconcile them with NHS Trusts’ legal responsibility to ensure safe staffing levels on wards.”