OXFORDSHIRE’S understaffed hospitals have been forced to breach a cap set by the NHS regulator on on agency worker spending in order to keep wards running safely.

Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spent a total of £18m on agency staff in 2018/19 - £6.5m more than the previous year.

The figure is £1.3m more than the limit set by NHS Improvement with national health chiefs keen to bring down the amount spent on expensive agency costs.

An OUH report states: “NHS Improvement set the Trust a spend on agency ceiling for 2018/19 of £16.7m.

“The expenditure on agency staff for the full year was £18.0m, due to the spend on staff required to maintain operational capacity to meet performance standards."

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The trust runs Oxordshire’s acute hospitals such as the John Radcliffe and the Churchill hospitals in Headington and the Horton General Hospital in Banbury.

In 2015 trust spending on agency staff had increased to the extent that it was one of the most significant causes of deteriorating trust finances.

NHS Improvement introduced a set of rules in April 2016 to support trusts to reduce their agency expenditure and move towards a sustainable model of temporary staffing.

Agency staff can cost as much as 55 per cent more than the hourly rate of permanent staff.

The ceiling set by NHS Improvement had been set at £18m for the last few years before being lowered in 2018/19.

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Chief Executive of OUH, Bruno Holthof, said: “Patient safety is a key priority for us at the trust, and we often recruit agency staff in order to provide the safest care possible, and meet performance standards.

“We took the decision as part of our people strategy to spend more on temporary staff in 2018/19 while we recruit substantive staff to provide a sustainable service to our patients.

“We introduced a number of incentive schemes over the peak winter months to increase our staffing capacity.

"This meant we could meet patient demand for urgent and elective care by opening up as many beds as possible, and running additional theatre sessions.

“While this increased our expenditure for 2018/19, we are now in a position to use more of our staff, and therefore spend less on agency workers.

"As a trust, we will continue to improve staff retention and grow the number of substantive staff – during 2018/19, there was a steady increase of over 150 substantive staff.

“However, Bank and agency staff will continue to be an important part of our workforce, giving us flexibility to cope with the level and mix of patient care which we need to provide throughout the year."