POOLE Hospital has spent more than £6 million on agency nursing staff in the past five years with £3 million of that spent in the last year alone.

The hospital, which is on course for a merger with its Bournemouth counterpart - partly in an attempt to save money - spent more than £225,000 on agency staff in June. It spent nearly £400,000 during March, its most expensive month to date.

Things were slightly better at Royal Bournemouth which recorded a £1,906,646 payment to agency staff for 2018/2019 and paid out more than £62,000 in June 2019 for this type of staff.

The Poole spend is the equivalent to more than 5,000 hours of operating theatre time or 196 cardiac nurses.

Figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request show that all of the agency money has gone to one provider, Thornbury Nursing Services.

On its website Thornbury states that it pays those in charge of a specialist unit a basic of £43 per hour rising to £96.50 for a bank holiday. Trained staff including registered general nurse and mental nurses receive £30.50 per hour basic rising to £67.50 for bank holidays. They also pay mileage and the rate includes holiday pay.

The Echo asked Thornbury for a statement but at time of press nothing was received.

In 2015 the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt introduced a cap on what private agencies can charge the NHS for their services. "For too long staffing agencies have been able to rip off the NHS by charging extortionate hourly rates which cost billions of pounds a year and undermine staff working hard to deliver high-quality care," he said.

Last year Poole blamed 'significant staff shortages' for what government inspectors described as 'serious failures' in its operating theatres last year. Chief executive Debbie Fleming said at the time: “Our theatres are always busy, but at the time of the CQC inspection, we were experiencing significant staff shortages and were dealing with an unprecedented number of trauma admissions."

In a joint statement, director of nursing at Poole Hospital Patricia Reid and director of nursing at The Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals Paula Shobbrook said the national shortage of Registered General Nurses was having an impact on recruitment at Poole Hospital and RBCH, in line with other NHS Trusts across the country.

“Patient safety is our priority and we use a temporary staffing resource to ensure we have the appropriate number of registered nurses on our wards," they said.

“Wherever possible we recruit nurses substantively to our vacant roles, and both organisations have been successful in attracting high quality nurses in recent years.

“However the need to use temporary staffing – whether to cover issues such as staff illness or a high demand for our services - demonstrates that there are simply not enough suitably skilled nurses available to recruit."

They said that some staff prefer the flexibility of working in a temporary position.

“In recognition of this, and working together, Poole and RBCH have recently undertaken a review of the agencies we use to ensure that the best value for money is achieved," they said.

“As a consequence, we have created a list of preferred agencies who can provide nurses with the right skills whilst achieving the best value for money.

“The safe staffing of wards and the provision of the best care possible are our absolute priorities, and through the prudent use of agency nursing staff working alongside our dedicated permanent nursing staff, we are able to achieve this.”

Regional organiser of the health section of the Unison trade union, Michael Cracknell, called for better NHS funding but stressed the service faced many issues nationally.

"The dilemma for all NHS Trusts is balancing the needs for safe staffing levels and the availability of in house qualified staff," he said. "This isn’t simply a local problem but a result of significant underfunding during Jeremy Hunt’s watch.

"The public have a right to be concerned about the situation but to reduce the reliance upon agency staff we need to address the severe staff shortages. This won’t happen overnight and to resolve this national problem it needs genuine commitment and a long term strategy."

He said his union had worked with the NHS to negotiate the adult living wage for apprentices to ensure high-quality and motivated recruits.

"Its about trying to draw staff in," he said. "We need to help staff develop organically, say from healthcare assistants to qualified nurses."

He said it was also important to try and retain staff recruited overseas in individual hospitals and trusts such as Poole

* Almost 100 new nurses are set to join Poole Hospital from overseas in the next few months as it works to tackle its staff shortage.