A debt-ridden hospital trust is being forced to pay stand-in doctors up to £1,760 a day to ease chronic staff shortages in its accident and emergency departments.
Queen’s hospital in Romford and King George in Ilford are spending about £100,000 a week on A&E agency staff – despite being £38 million in debt.
Hospital chiefs say they have no option as they battle to cope with A&E attendances soaring to about 250,000 a year and with national staff shortages meaning that only half its 18 emergency consultant posts are filled.
The figures came to light during a public accounts committee investigation into the dire state of NHS finances. MPs fear the rates highlight how some locum staff are able to reap massive rewards from the NHS by refusing to take staff jobs.
Matthew Hopkins, chief executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS Trust, which runs Queen’s and King George, admitted locum consultants were being paid £110 an hour to work in the A&Es.
Last year it ran up a £7.1 million bill for temporary A&E staff, with doctors earning £1,000 or more on 217 occasions.
Mr Hopkins said the trust was forced to pay “very competitive” rates to attract temporary staff but struggled to recruit and retain nurses and doctors to an unfashionable part of London.
Only 17 of its 36 middle grade A&E doctor posts are filled, while 20 per cent of emergency staff quit each year. Only about three-quarters of posts are filled on its A&E wards on an average day.
Mr Hopkins said its locum consultants normally worked full-time in other hospitals and were doing overtime. They would work a 16-hour shift for £1,760, he said.
Barking, Havering and Redbridge is the only NHS trust in London in “special measures”. It has breached the NHS target for treating patients attending A&E within four hours in 50 of the last 53 months. Last week, 935 patients waited more than four hours to be seen.
The trust has been forced to put plans to close the A&E at King George on hold until its A&E performance improves and the emergency department at Queen’s can be expanded. Queen’s receives about 110 ambulances a day – more than any other London hospital.
Mr Hopkins said: “We are struggling to make sure people are treated within the four-hour standard. We absolutely have to get that right before we can countenance progressing a significant change [at King George].”
He added: “If we had one A&E, we would have enough A&E doctors. The fact we have got two A&Es means I’m stretching my staff across two sites.”
No NHS money has yet been provided to pay for the new facilities at Queen’s but the trust has been promised £8 million in emergency winter funding.
Mr Hopkins told MPs that the NHS in his part of east London was underfunded by about £25 million a year, and that the trust’s cumulative debt over the last decade was in excess of £200 million.