The Southern Health Trust has spent over £150 million in banking and agency nurses in just over three years.
And the revelations have been described as “shocking” by one local nurse.
Ms Loughran, who is also the Newry-based representative for Aontú, revealed that, in total the Health Service in Northern Ireland paid £718,706,010 to banking and agency nurses during the pandemic, from the beginning of restrictions until June 2023.
In the Southern Trust – which covers the Newry, Armagh, Dungannon, Lurgan, Portadown, Craigavon, Banbridge and surrounding areas – over £97 million was spent on agency nurses during that time.
The majority of this – just over £52 million – came at the height of the Covid pandemic, between March 2020 and February 2022.
Meanwhile, more than £53 million was spent on banking between March 2020 and June of this year.
Ms Loughran said the figures show the folly of not paying nurses the wage which she believes they are entitled to.
“Since the pandemic – when huge pressure was placed on the Health Service across the North until June of this year – the Health Service has paid huge sums to bank and agency nurses – £718,706,010 or around 11% of the total budget for health in the region for one year.
“This is a shocking revelation and lays bare the imperative to invest in and retain nursing staff.
“The huge number of agency staff being utilised across the HSC is largely due to the level of pay for our staff – and the reality that many of our dedicated staff are being forced to supplement their income with agency hours.
“There has been no increase in pay for nurses, and an unwillingness for extra payments to be approved, leaving staff demoralised with little incentive for retention.
“As a nurse myself, I have seen the impact less pay and added pressure is having on my colleagues.
“What this means for patients is a lack of continuity and increasingly depersonalised care. Retention of our highly trained nursing staff must be high on the priority list of HSC executives and any future Executive.
“Between March 2020 and June 2023 some Trusts have spent over £20m on agency staff. The Southern Trust spent over £50m between March 2020 and February 2022 on agency staff at the height of the pandemic.
“Aontú will continue to highlight and bring pressure to bear on the running of our public services where deficiencies are clear and improvement is essential.”
A Southern Health Trust spokesperson commented: “Our staffing resources have been under enormous strain during the global pandemic, exacerbated by staff absences and ongoing recruitment challenges. There are currently around 1,000 staff vacancies in the Southern Trust, across all staff groups including approximately 220 Registered Nurse vacancies.
“Significant progress has been made in filling Registered Nurse vacancies in the Trust, however our Bank staff, who are directly employed by the Trust, are an invaluable resource to fill workforce gaps and to ensure that our patients and clients continue to receive a safe service. These staff, as well as agency workers engaged by the Trust have made a huge contribution to ensuring that Trust services continued to be available for patients/clients during the pandemic.
“Regionally, HSC Trusts have worked together with the Department of Health (DOH) to reduce the use of agency workers and substantial progress has been made in this regard. A Nursing and Healthcare Support Framework for the supply of agency nurses, midwives and healthcare support workers was introduced in May 2023 and is a key mechanism in delivering a reduction in agency staff costs incurred by the health service in Northern Ireland.
“Since August 2023, the use of ‘off-framework’ agencies has been eliminated. DoH Permanent Secretary Peter May acknowledged that ‘reducing the reliance on agency workers is the right thing to do. Building up our own workforce is the best way to ensure safe and effective care and is vital in order to rebuild our health and social care services across Northern Ireland’.”