THE sustained impact of the pandemic across NHS Ayrshire and Arran has been laid bare - as new figures revealed the health board has splashed almost £4 million on agency cover in just the last six months.

Details of the spend were published following a freedom of information (FOI) request examining the extent to which external workers have been relied upon during the ongoing Covid crisis.

The response to the FOI request reveals that the health board uses 30 agencies to supply external nurses, with a preferred supplier list consisting of 25 separate agencies.

Between September 2021 and February 2022 NHS Ayrshire and Arran spent a total of £3,815,656 on agency nurses from 19 different service providers.

Scottish Nursing Guild made up the bulk of that outlay - more than £2.1 million - while Newcross Healthcare Solutions, Allied and Clinical, TSA (Temporary Staffing Agency), Robinson Medical Recruitment, and Clinical 24 Staffing each took around £200,000.

At the other end of the scale, IMC Locums took just £900, while H1 Healthcare Group, Your World Recruitment, The Social Care Community Partnership, Pertemps Medical Professionals, Rig Locums, Globe Locums, and ID Medical Group accounted for less than £10,000 each.

The health board said the information held within its records does not break down spend by grade or speciality of nurse.

In a report published last week highlighting the national nursing staffing crisis, Royal College of Nursing Scotland (RCN) warned the record-high vacancy rate for nursing staff across the country is a serious threat to maintaining high quality patient care.

Julie Lamberth, RCN Scotland board chair, said: “Nurses and nursing support workers are exhausted and worn down by the past two years. But the pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated the long-term issues of a workforce which is undervalued and under-resourced.

“The NHS has relied on the goodwill of its staff for a long time. But nursing staff should not be forced to take on additional hours on health board nurse banks or nursing agencies, because they feel the need to support hard-pressed colleagues working with fewer staff than required, or to make ends meet.

“Many of our members are thinking about or actively considering leaving their jobs. Scottish government needs to make sure nursing remains attractive, well-paid and meaningfully supported, otherwise, we risk many of our members leaving the profession – at a time when they’re needed more than ever.”

Kenneth Gibson, SNP MSP for Cunninghame North, said he would be meeting with the health board’s recently-appointed chief executive, Claire Burden, this week.

Mr Gibson said: “While Covid is still a major factor, with many staff having recently been unwell, NHS Ayrshire and Arran (NHSAA) is now in a position to reintroduce more in-and outpatient services delayed during the pandemic.

“This has undoubtedly led to an increase in the use of agency nurses, as the priority is to treat more patients as soon as possible.

“As of December 31, NHSAA employed a record 5,263 nurses filling 4,572.2 whole time equivalent (WTE) posts - an increase of 258 nurses compared to the year before, when 4,339 WTE positions were filled.

“The SNP government’s £300 million of additional investment in nursing helped services across NHSAA and beyond deal with system pressures over winter, and the £1 billion NHS Recovery Plan introduced a range of direct workforce investments too.

“While it is fair for the Royal College of Nursing to express apprehension around the retention of those in the profession it represents, the record number of nurses in NHSAA and across Scotland receive the highest nursing pay anywhere in UK and Scotland enjoys the highest ration of nurse to patients in the UK.”

“The NHS now receives 44 per cent of the entire Scottish budget, its highest share ever. More nurses continue to be recruited and trained, which will further relieve pressures over the years and months ahead.”

Dr Philippa Whitford, SNP MP for Central Ayrshire and a qualified breast surgeon, said workforce is the “biggest single challenge” facing all four National Health Services across the UK.

She said: “While the problem has been emerging for several years, it was significantly exacerbated by Brexit, which caused an 80 per cent drop in EU nurses registering to work in the UK.

“Covid is continuing to put incredible strain on our NHS and, while staff have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, many are exhausted or directly impacted by Covid infection or isolation.

“While the use of agency staff would never be the first choice, the health board has to maintain safe staffing levels within our acute hospitals to protect patients.”

Jennifer Wilson, interim deputy nurse director at NHS Ayrshire and Arran, said the health board “continues to experience the impact of the pandemic” with hospitals currently operating at full capacity and remaining under emergency planning conditions.

Last week, health bosses confirmed to the Advertiser that staff were being drafted in from other parts of the service to provide cover in wards and help “ease the pressure” on the system.

Ms Wilson said: “As part of our workforce response to increased demand, staffing challenges and high levels of absence, We have used agency nurses more than in previous years.

“This increased level of spend was not budgeted for. However, it is covered by the Scottish Government who fully funded all additional cost arising from Covid-19 in 2021/22.

“We have set a target to reduce nursing agency spend in 2022/23.”

“We remain extremely grateful to our workforce who have worked tirelessly and shown flexibility and resilience in responding to all stages of the pandemic.”