The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) has hit back at what it described as the “systematic focus” on the cost of using locum staff rather than the benefits they bring to the NHS and other public sector employers.
The call followed the publication of figures which show that the cost of hiring locum or temporary doctors for NHS hospitals in England has increased to more than £750 million per year since the introduction of the Working Time Regulations (WTR), which limit the working week to 48 hours.
The figures, obtained by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) under the Freedom of Information Act, show that annual spending on all hospital locum doctors has increased by almost £200 million in the past year and has almost doubled since 2007. For surgical locums alone the amount spent is almost £250 million per year.
John Black, president of the RCS, said: “It seems ridiculous that at a time of economic crisis, with wide-ranging cuts to services across the board, we are seeing astronomical sums of money being thrown at locum doctors in order to prop up services that are only falling apart because of an ill-conceived European law.”
The RCS has called on the Government to opt out of the WTR, warning that the NHS is losing more than 400,000 hours of surgical time a month while still managing the same workload.
But Tom Hadley, director of policy at the REC, said opting out would be “a retrograde step” that would not benefit a modern and efficient healthcare service that values the well-being of patients and staff
“Are we really advocating a return to 80-hour weeks for overworked, overstretched doctors?” he said. “The reality is that locum doctors provide a cost-effective and flexible way of spreading the load and ensuring that the right staff are in the right place at the right time.
“Of course, costs must be managed. However, they must also be put in context and weighed against the cost of employing more permanent staff or having internal NHS staff replicate the work of specialised agencies in sourcing, vetting and placing suitably skilled locum staff.”
Hadley said that the debate must move away from seeing temporary and locum workers as an unnecessary cost within the public sector.
“The effective supply of properly trained and vetted locums is crucial to the delivery of front-line services – it should be hailed as a huge benefit rather than curtailed,” he said. “The REC will continue to work with the Department of Health and procurement bodies to find ways of balancing cost control with a sustainable supply and patient safety.”