THE Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals are continuing to rely heavily on expensive agency staff to plug gaps in the workforce.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) was spending about £1.3 million per month on temporary staff last year, against a target of £800,000, but the bill increased to about £1.6 million for both November and December.

Employing a locum doctor can cost £1,500 a shift, about four times as much as filling a shift with permanent staff.

Bosses said the increased bill was necessary to sustain safe staffing levels over the busy winter period. Nearly a third of the speading was for middle grade doctors, as many permanant posts remain vacant.

In Blackburn’s emergency department there is funding for 18 middle grade posts, with only 10 filled.

A national shortage of middle grade and consultant doctors has been well documented by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, with many young medics deterred by the long hours and stressful nature of A&E work.

The union wants better terms and conditions to make the job more attractive.

David Smithson, head of human resources at ELHT, said of the temporary staffing bill: “The increase in the main is due to the need to cover nurse and middle grade doctor vacancies in order to sustain safe staffing levels over the winter period.

“The trust is actively recruiting; locally, nationally and internationally to fill these vacancies on a permanent basis.”

One of the concerns raised in last year’s Keogh Report, which prompted health chiefs to place ELHT in special measures, was that the high number of temporary workers had compromised the quality of care for patients.

Charles Thomson, clinical director and consultant in emergency medicine at ELHT, said: “Of the remaining posts (in the emergency department), we have currently filled half of these and we have doctors who we have recruited at this level who we are waiting to join us and regular locum doctors who work primarily for us.”

He said various schemes had been introduced to make the trust more attractive to young doctors, such as enhanced training and rotation to other specialties, so their skills can be increased.