HEALTH boards have spent more than £26 million on agency staff in the space of three months to plug rota gaps.

Figures obtained under freedom of information by Scottish Labour show that private agencies were paid £26,282,190 from December to the end of February this year as the NHS struggled with staffing shortages. 

The true cost will be even higher, however, as NHS Tayside was unable to supply figures. 

In total, agency nurses covered 34,383 shifts over the period.

READ MORE: Junior doctors versus the Scottish Government - who will blink first? 

Excluding Tayside, where figures were unavailable, the data indicates that the average cost to the NHS per eight-hour agency shift was around £847, or £106 an hour. 

In comparison, a newly-qualified Band 5 nurse employed by NHS Scotland earns around £14.50 per hour. 

The Herald:

The Herald: Spending by NHS Scotland on bank and agency nurses and midwives (top) and (above) locum doctorsSpending by NHS Scotland on bank and agency nurses and midwives (top) and (above) locum doctors (Image: Turas)

Scotland's largest health board, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, spent £1.4m on more than 8,600 agency shifts - roughly £163 per shift - while NHS Lothian spent more than £6m covering around 4,800 shifts - equivalent to £1,230 per shift. 

Similarly, NHS Lanarkshire spent £5.8m on 4,894 agency shifts - or £1,185 per shift. 

It is understood that some health boards included spending on locum doctors within their totals, however, while others responded only on the basis on nurse agency spending, which would explain the apparently large discrepancies by region.

Scottish Labour said private agencies had "reaped the benefits" of an NHS workforce crisis.  

Its health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, said: “This is the true cost of SNP failure.

“A decade and a half of bad choices and inaction from the SNP has caused this dismal situation - one that only got worse during Humza Yousaf’s abysmal stint as Health Secretary.

“While junior doctors are being balloted for strike action over pay, the Scottish taxpayer is being handed this eye-watering bill by private agencies to plugs the gaps in the NHS workforce.

“Our NHS will continue to face this crisis as long as staff find themselves overworked and underpaid. Conditions get more challenging every day and all this SNP government has to offer is soundbites.

“The new Health Secretary must prioritise tackling the workforce crisis if we are to truly see recovery in the NHS – we cannot continue to allow the people to Scotland to pay the price of SNP failure."

READ MORE: Nurses 'in tears' over staff shortages on shifts, says RCN leader 

According to the latest official workforce data, NHS Scotland spent £88.9m in total on agency nurses in the year to March 2022, compared to just £3.9m in 2011/12. 

Spending on locum doctors also doubled from £67m in the year to March 2014, to £102m in 2021/22. 

The expenditure costs, which do not account for inflation, came as a report on the NHS in February by Audit Scotland warned that health boards were continuing "to find it hard to recruit the doctors, nurses and other health professionals needed to make sure NHS services are sustainable in the long term". 

It warned that "high staff turnover rates, higher than normal sickness and vacancy rates, and gaps in the workforce continue to have an adverse effect on workforce capacity", adding that "high levels of workforce vacancies in nursing have led to increased expenditure on nursing bank and agency staff".

The Herald: Agency spending December 1 2022-February 28 2023Agency spending December 1 2022-February 28 2023 (Image: Scottish Labour)

The Herald: Number of nursing agency shifts, December 2022-February 2023Number of nursing agency shifts, December 2022-February 2023 (Image: Scottish Labour)

An investigation by the BBC last week revealed that companies providing freelance staff to the NHS to cover huge shortfalls in doctors and nurses have seen their income rise by tens of millions of pounds since 2019.

One hospital in England had paid £5,200 for a single shift by a locum medic. 

According to financial records, Medacs Healthcare - a major supplier of locum doctors to the NHS - had seen its sales increase by 80%, to £160.9m, between 2019 and 2021.

READ MORE: 800 extra GPs target 'not on track' warns Audit Scotland

Organisations including the Royal College of Nursing has repeatedly called on ministers to make it easier for NHS staff to work flexibly or alter their hours to reduce the rate of people dropping out of the workforce. 

In some cases, it has warned that people have quit or retired earlier than planned to take up employment through agencies or NHS nurse banks instead because it was the only way they could change their working patterns. 

The Scottish Government said the number of qualified nurses and midwives in NHS Scotland rose by 12.9 per cent between September 2006 and December 2022, and that use of temporary staff "will always be required" to cover unplanned absences,  maternity leaves, holidays and sick leave. 

It added that health boards have access to 35,000 nurses and 2,900 doctors through health boards' own staff banks. 

A spokeswoman said: “NHS Scotland staffing is around £9 billion a year, with spending on agency nursing a tiny fraction of this. 

"It is important to note that the majority of temporary staffing come from staff banks; these are NHS staff, working on NHS terms and conditions.  

“We absolutely value our nursing staff and have reached historically high NHS staffing as well as investing £1 billion over two years on NHS Agenda for Change Pay which includes a recently accepted 6.5% pay rise for 2023/24.”