The must-read stories and debate in health policy and leadership.

The health and social care secretary has told MPs that Integrated Care Boards should find “innovative ways” to use all their primary dental budgets.

This comes as NHS England recently told ICBs that they may use any unused dental funding to support the bottom line.

At the health and social care committee on Wednesday, Victoria Atkins praised those ICBs that have utilised their budgets effectively and “have been able to find innovative ways of dealing with dentistry, over and above their usual ways of working. That’s what NHSE is trying to encourage”.

She said she would like more “transparency” on the way that ICBs have used funding, as “through ICBs’ finances we’ll be able to see what exactly they’re doing with their dental spend”.

She added: “If your ICB is not spending money on dentistry that it has received, then I think you as a constituency MP and your constituents deserve to know that. The question then for the ICB is why aren’t they spending that money on local dentistry?”

Ms Atkins did not provide a date for the publication of a recovery plan for NHS dentistry.

New assault on agency spend

Back in 2015, Jeremy Hunt (then health secretary) launched a multipronged intervention to stop staffing agencies “ripping off the NHS”, promising to drive down rates and “beat them at their own game”.

Regulators would later hail the “huge achievement” as trusts successfully brought down spending from around £3.5bn in the year of Hunt’s intervention to £2.4bn in the years immediately before the pandemic.

That triumph has now been reversed, as new data shows that provider agency expenditure has surged to pre-pandemic levels.

NHSE’s attempts to hold back the tide have failed dramatically, with trusts busting the centrally imposed agency cap for 2022-23 by more than £1bn.

The rip-off is causing concern among the upper echelons of NHSE. Finance supremo Julian Kelly said last week that the service had seen “really substantial” growth in agency and bank costs and now had to “turn that around”.

A spokesman insisted the health service was doing better this year, telling HSJ spending was down in both absolute terms and as a proportion of the paybill. But even if NHSE managers to hit its target for 2023-24, expenditure will still be hundreds of millions higher than it was pre-covid. 

Also on today

The Department of Health and Social Care is looking for a new chief commercial officer to deliver its efficiency and savings targets, as well as a variety of procurement and commercial activities. And in Comment, Michael Watts says the NHS could benefit from a surge of innovation if it’s given greater flexibility to adopt new technologies.