Nurses are being asked to work extra shifts for free to save their jobs – as health boards across Scotland spend up to £30million hiring agency staff.
Almost 4,000 NHS jobs, including more than 1,500 nursing and midwifery posts, will be axed this year due to cutbacks, according to Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon.
But last night it emerged that the country’s 14 health boards have set aside a combined £30million for temporary nurses and theatre staff over the next four years.
NHS Grampian hopes to save £385,000 by asking staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary’s surgical unit to take on one more shift each month – for no extra money.
The agency staff contract, which has just been awarded, will see nine firms provide workers to fill staffing gaps as health boards – including NHS Tayside and NHS Highland – deal with the spending crisis in the public sector.
The contract will last for two years, with the option of extending it for two more.
Last night the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland raised fears that the deal could reverse efforts to cut reliance on agency workers.
RCN associate director Norman Provan said: “Nursing teams have led the way in recent years by changing the way in which their work is managed so that reliance on costly agency staff has been reduced. As health boards cut costs by not replacing staff when they leave, we will be monitoring them to ensure they do not reverse the trend of recent years and begin relying too heavily on agency nursing to fill the gaps.
“If health boards do realise that they need to fill the gaps created by their unsustainable cost-cutting tactics, they must recruit additional permanent staff in the best interests of patient care.”
Labour shadow cabinet member Richard Baker added: “It looks like different parts of the NHS are not talking to each other. When NHS Scotland is spending £30million on a contract to provide agency nurses it seems ridic-ulous that NHS Grampian is asking their nurses to work an extra shift for nothing.”
An Aberdeen company is one of the nine firms which will share the contract. H1 Healthcare Solutions – which trades as PCSG Healthcare – said it could take on up to 250 health workers during the duration of the deal.
An NHS Scotland spokes-man said the contract replaced an agreement which was about to expire. He said the number of agency nurses being used was falling, and that trend would continue.
He added: “Whilst agencies will always have a role in providing supplementary staff, this only supplements internal efforts to meet the staffing requirements.”
The RCN has also voiced concerns about NHS Grampian’s plans to share an extra 188 12-hour shifts between its nurses. It is understood that nurses in the surgical unit at ARI would receive an extra 15 minutes unpaid break per day to compensate for the extra shift.
One angry ARI nurse, who did not want to be named, said: “Everyone is unhappy about these changes. We’ve been asked to meetings but the feeling is: if we contest it, they won’t care. We’ve been given 90 days to comply.
“They are trying to save money but the added pressure is all on the nurses, it’s coming out of our pockets. We are being asked to work for nothing.”
Another said: “The thing the nurses are worried about is patient care. We already have skeleton staffs because of the recruitment freeze, so we don’t get our breaks.”
Colin Poolman, the RCN’s local officer for Grampian, said members were furious about the plans. “This change in working arrangements is clearly to the detriment of our hard-working and over-stretched members who are bearing the brunt of the cuts being made by NHS Grampian,” he said.
Tory health spokeswoman and Highland MSP Mary Scanlon said the plans were the first time she had ever heard of a public body asking staff to work for free.
A spokesman for NHS Grampian said the measures will help secure jobs.
He said: “The proposal is to move from 13 to 14 shifts in a month in the surgical one division of ARI. It will potentially save £385,000 which is very important in the current financial climate. The alternative would be to employ fewer staff.”