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Recent reports that the NHS spends up to £2.5bn a year on agency staff have sparked outrage throughout the media and amongst the general public. However, while the complex circumstances which have led to this headline figure are often simplified in mainstream media, the benefits of contract staff to public sector are often overlooked. Putting political agendas aside, these are the top five reasons why the NHS needs agency staff:

1. Fluctuations in requirements – Agency staff plug gaps across the NHS so that it is able to provide optimum levels of care, irrespective of peaks in demand surrounding viral epidemics or seasonal admissions.

2. Global market – Professionals from overseas make an important contribution to the NHS and help to redress the balance of UK trained professionals travelling abroad for work.

3. Avoidance of permanent headcount costs – Investing in agency staff sporadically is an efficient way for Trusts to ensure front line services are consistently maintained, without the overheads associated with permanent recruitment. Agency staff can be drafted in to cover staff absences on short notice, freeing the NHS from unnecessary permanent headcount costs.

4. No room for error – Quality of service is absolutely vital, and contract staff are subject to the same stringent criteria that permanent staff must adhere to. Agency and locum staff remove the risk of reduced care quality and patient safety issues. The availability of contractors ensures that nurse to patient ratios need never be compromised.

5. Necessity – Agencies offer a valuable service that much of the NHS would struggle without. According to the Royal College of Nursing, over a third of district nurses are over 50, yet cuts to nurse degree training places in the UK mean we are not pipelining sufficient home grown talent. Until these issues are resolved, there are simply not enough permanent staff. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.

Commenting on the use of agency staff, CEO of MSI Group, Nick Simpson said:

“An ageing population, retirement cliffs and insufficient talent pipelining have all contributed to an acute shortage of permanent healthcare professionals. While it is imperative that these issues are addressed long-term, we cannot escape the fact that agency nurses and locum doctors provide a valuable service that, for the imminent future, the NHS simply cannot do without.”

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