NHS and Agencies: a COVID-19 partnership approach to tackling understaffing

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we already had a staffing crisis on our hands with 100,000 vacancies across the NHS and 120,000 in adult social care. There is no doubt that the NHS has been under tremendous pressure this year, facing its toughest challenge since its founding. Part of the NHS’ coping strategy has of course been to expand the number of staff to cope with the mounting pressures within primary and secondary care.

As pressure mounted, the NHS relied heavily on its partnerships with staffing agencies to help alleviate the workforce issues. The influx of temporary workers allowed the NHS to heroically tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent the loss of many lives.

A recent HSJ article revealed the demand on the NHS differed widely from place to place, with varying effects on patient outcomes. So, extra support from agency staff who are willing and able to travel safely has been crucial. In the article, journalist Neil Carberry saidThis ability to respond at pace is especially important in a crisis. I recently heard from two agency doctors who cut short their travels abroad when COVID-19 struck the UK and returned to work on the front line.”

“They applied to both the NHS return to work programme and the Nightingale hospitals directly, and received no response for weeks. But after contacting an agency, they started work in the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport just four days later, where infection rates were high.”

Although this temporary staffing support was invaluable to patient care, there have been concerns that the agency workforces may have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus, particularly in care homes. The care home issue is one that has been widely covered and it is now generally accepted that they were not put into a lockdown scenario early enough.  All staff, whether temporary or not, are subject to the same rigorous infection control guidelines and obligation to wear PPE so the implication that temporary workers specially were a factor is rather unjust.

In additional efforts to contain the spread, many agencies worked hard to keep staff on the same placement and, with so many vacancies in care homes during the peak, bank and agency workers were critical to maintaining safe staffing levels.

Sure, in time there will be an abundance of learnings the entire healthcare sector can take away from this pandemic, and the larger issues it has brought to light. There will more than likely be a review into performance before the winter ends too. The issue of staff shortages is not likely to disappear, so it would make sense for building a relationship with agencies to be part of the conversation for the NHS’ strategy going forward. Temporary workers will always be needed in the sector, and COVID-19 has proven the unique value that healthcare recruiters and agency staff bring. Afterall, we are all striving towards one common goal – to provide the highest quality of care to all of the UK’s patients.  

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