A ban on NHS nurses working in staffing agencies has been dropped at the last minute, following protests from nurses who said they could not make ends meet without supplementing NHS wages, and widespread fears of staff shortages on wards.
The national regulator NHS Improvement (NHSI) had hoped to cut the nursing agency bill by 25 per cent by banning hospitals from employing agency workers who held permanent NHS job. The ban was due to come into effect on 1 April, but the plans were withdrawn on 31 March.
The NHS spent £3.7bn on agency staff last year, the bulk of which was divested on nursing shifts. Around half of nurses who work for agencies are thought to be taking the extra shifts on top of NHS jobs, and hospitals had expressed concerns they would not be able to fill shifts if the measures forced nurses away from agency rates into lower-paid internal staff banks.
Analysis carried out by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) found a nurse working an average of five extra hours each week through an agency would have been £1,100 worse off over the year before tax following the ban. A poll of RCN nurses also revealed 40 per cent said they would look for work in the private sector if NHS rates were reduced, and a quarter (27 per cent) said they would work fewer shifts.
Janet Davies, general secretary of the RCN, welcomed the reversal of the ban, which she described as “unfair, punitive and damaging to high-quality patient care”.
“This was an ill-conceived plan by NHS Improvement and [the] U-turn will be welcomed by nursing staff across the country,” Davies said. “For many NHS nurses, the only way to ensure a decent income is to undertake additional work through an agency. They would not have to do this if NHS pay had kept pace with inflation in recent years.”
News of the U-turn was also welcomed by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which had repeatedly called on the NHSI to reverse the ban. “We are delighted NHS Improvement has seen sense and stepped back from this hastily proposed ban, which risked throwing the NHS into chaos,” said chief executive Kevin Green.
In an online statement announcing the U-turn, chief executive of the NHSI Jim Mackey said the regulator was committed to creating a fair system, and that the decision to "pause’" the ban had come after listening to the concerns of NHS staff.
“We have listened and responded to the feedback from nurses about the latest agency rules on substantive staff,” he said. “We’re committed to getting it right for nurses and doctors alike and making sure the system and the way staff can work is fair and equal, which is why we’re taking more time to work with the sector.”
The decision to scrap the ban will raise concerns that savings on staff costs are increasingly difficult, as the NHS approaches the end of the financial year with losses of around £800mn – at a time when a number of industries are reporting concerns about their ability to recruit staff after Britain leaves the EU.
The NHS hopes to tackle future recruitment gaps by launching a ‘fast track’ nurse training programme that aims to significantly increase the number of nurses in the UK by 2020.