AN agency charged Royal Bolton Hospital an average of more than £1,000 per shift for emergency nurses during the height of the pandemic.

Figures obtained by The Bolton News under the Freedom of Information Act show that Bolton NHS Foundation Trust paid a total of £51,177 to Thornbury Nursing Services, out of a total of £5m spent on agency fees, for 49 shifts over the last 12 months.

This meant that the agency, ultimately owned by Canadian billionaire Gerald Schwartz, was able to charge an average of more that £1,040 a shift for nurses.

Bolton health Unison branch secretary Linda Miller said: “These figures are very concerning, the trust’s over-reliance on expensive agency staff comes at a cost for tax-payers and also has a negative impact on continuity of care. But this issue must be seen within the broader context, the NHS is facing a staffing crisis, which has been worsened by the pandemic.

She added: “Using over-priced agency cover to fill this void is a short-term solution, the government must significantly improve pay to attract and retain NHS workers.”

Figures show hourly rates charged by Thornbury Nursing Services, part of healthcare solutions company the Acacium Group, for shifts at Royal Bolton were £62.45 for day shifts, £78.45 for nights and £82.95 for Sundays.

Under government rules, the maximum amount NHS trusts should pay “framework” agencies for a band five nurse on a bank holiday is £38.51 an hour.

But "off-framework” agencies do not have to apply through an open tender process and can charge far above the normal rate. The NHS as a whole spent £6bn on agency staff across England last year.

A Bolton NHS Foundation Trust spokesman said: “Due to the unprecedented pressures brought by Covid-19, to ensure safe staffing levels we have, on occasion, used off-framework agencies. An expansion of the bank, reduced Covid absence rates and recruitment mean that this should not be the case in future.”

Thornbury Nursing Services is part of the Acacium Group, which has been approached for comment. It has previously said it had not inflated fees during the pandemic and instead had increased the availability of discounted rates, waived cancellation fees and capped travel costs to customers.