Agency nurse framework goes fully live in Northern Ireland

A framework that aims to stop the use of nurses, midwives and healthcare support workers from overly expensive agencies has now come into force in Northern Ireland.

As of yesterday, Health and Social Care (HSC) trusts in the country can now only use agencies that are signed up to the government’s Nursing and Healthcare Support Framework.

Those that are on the framework list have agreed to provide nurses, midwives and healthcare support workers at a fair price.

The introduction of the framework began on a phased basis from 15 May 2023, but it is now mandatory for trusts to adhere by it. To date, 33 agencies have signed up.

Northern Ireland Department of Health permanent secretary Peter May said “tremendous progress” had been made in tackling agency spending.

“Reducing the reliance on agency workers is the right thing to do,” he added.

“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.”

Dolores McCormick, associate director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said the union would be monitoring how the roll out of the framework impacts nurses out in practice.

“The RCN has been actively engaged in work to shape ongoing measures to reduce the reliance on agency staff and welcomed the introduction of the Nursing and Healthcare Support Framework in May,” she told Nursing Times.

“While we continue to support the work being carried out by the Department of Health, we must also ensure safe staffing and patient safety continue to be a priority.

“We will be working closely with members to monitor any impact the cessation of ‘off-framework’ agency use has on nursing staff who are already working in pressurised environments across many areas of health and social care in Northern Ireland.”

While supportive of measures to reduce agency expenditure, Ms McCormick said the RCN was clear that more also needed to be done to improve support for nurses in the workforce including boosting their pay.

Nurses in Northern Ireland received a worse pay deal for 2022-23 than their counterparts in the other UK countries, and they are also still waiting for a 2023-24 pay rise.

She said: “We hope these measures will help to improve the situation in relation to expenditure on agency staff but as we have said before, more must be done to retain staff within the health service and ensure it becomes a better employer.

“In particular, the pay situation in Northern Ireland, and the fact that we are now the lowest paid in the UK, will have a negative impact on our ability to recruit and retain nursing staff moving forward.”

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