• NHS Improvement calls for trusts to reduce agency spend by 17 per cent in 2018-19
  • One agency found to charge £480 per hour for one consultant
  • NHS Employers warns there are situations where recruiting agency staff is the only option

Trusts could save £460m by only recruiting temporary staff through agencies as a “last resort”, the regulator has urged.

NHS Improvement has called on all trusts to take a “bank first approach” to reduce agency costs by 17 per cent in 2018-19.

The regulator has warned that agency staff cost on average 20 per cent more than those from the NHS’s own staff banks, “despite doing the same job”.

Ian Dalton, chief executive of NHS Improvement, said although trusts have made “fantastic progress” in reducing the spend on “expensive” agency staff, there is further progress to be made.

“Temporary agency workers play an important role in ensuring staffing numbers remain at a level that provides the best possible care for patients,” Mr Dalton said. “But an over-reliance on high cost private agencies when there are other options available is not good for patients or for the NHS’s finances.”

NHSI revealed the five most expensive locum doctors currently cost the NHS more than £2m per year.

It found that one agency had been charging up to £480 an hour for one consultant and £200 for a further five. This is substantially higher than the £76.10 the NHS would be expected to pay if recruited from a trust’s bank.

Controlling agency spend has been a national priority for NHS Improvement since 2015 when it introduced a nationwide cap on all agency spending, including nursing and medical workers, in November 2015.

The regulator launched a new crackdown earlier this year on agency staff spending, which included the requirement any agency shift costing more than £100 an hour must be signed off by the trust’s chief executive and reported to NHSI.

Last month, NHSI data revealed trust spending on agency staff fell by more than £500m compared with the previous year. Trusts also overspent on bank staff by almost £1bn.

NHSI added it is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to pilot the use of app technology to make it easier for NHS bank workers to book shifts.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said trusts delivered a “significant reduction” in their agency spend and “better use of technology has placed an important part in this”.

“They will be interested in applying the new guidance from NHS Improvement to deliver further improvements, but will also be clear that there will be situations where the use of an agency member of staff may be the only available option,” Mr Mortimer said.

Miriam Deakin, deputy director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, called for a “long term approach to staffing that is underpinned by a comprehensive workforce strategy”.

“The reliance on agencies across the health and care system is a sticking plaster solution for the growing number of vacancies across the NHS and the increase in demand for services,” Ms Deakin said.