Tackling the UK Healthcare Staffing Crisis: Importance of the Agency Workforce

17 April 2023  •  NHS
Tackling the UK Healthcare Staffing Crisis: Importance of the Agency Workforce

The UK Healthcare market (including the National Health Service (NHS) and various private healthcare organisations) is facing the greatest workforce crisis in its history. This crisis is a result of several factors, namely failings in recruitment, workforce planning and wages. For example, in September 2022 it was estimated that over 133,000 job vacancies in the NHS.

Yet little attention has been paid to the impact such backlogs have on specific areas within the healthcare industry, which is why this paper outlines how issues are negatively impacting healthcare, and reviews how an increased workforce is the best solution for tackling the staffing crisis and subsequent backlogs.

The healthcare backlog and staffing crisis

Before COVID-19, the demand for hospital treatment had already exceeded capacity. The onslaught of the pandemic only increased this demand and caused significantly longer wait times for patients requiring care and consultation. There are many patients who are affected by this backlog in secondary care, including:

  • Patients on waiting lists for treatment(s)
  • Patients who have had procedures or operations cancelled
  • Patents who have had referrals cancelled or delayed
  • Patients who have had referrals denied due to a lack of availability or capacity
  • Patients who have not yet sought out medical help due to concerns of burdening the health service
  • Patients who have not yet sought out medical help due to fears about COVID-19 infection

One report in October 2022 found that 7.21 million people were still waiting to receive treatment – a new record high. Of these 7.21 million, 2.9 million have been waiting over 18 weeks. This means that the wait time was approximately 34 times higher than it was in November 2019. It is also worth noting that this figure is subject to questioning, as it does not account for the additional wait time patients experience before a “decision to admit” is granted. There are several reasons which have been accounted for this situation, yet chronic workforce shortages and the backlog of care remain the primary causes.

What's more, despite former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vow to “bust the backlog”, this number only increases when we consider that the 'hidden backlog' adds to official figures. The hidden backlog refers to patients who have not yet entered the healthcare system due to reasons associated with COVID-19. This includes having referrals cancelled or having not yet presented their symptoms to their GPs due to fears of burdening them amidst a staff shortage crisis. Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid estimated that there are approximately 10 million ‘hidden’ patients who are yet to, or only now, entering the health system.

Other issues that are worsening these conditions for both staff and, in turn, patients, include workforce training and retention. This comes as medical personnel struggle with excessive workloads and fatigue. This is a result of the staffing crisis, with a shortage of over 40,000 nurses from as early as 2017.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) is another reason for this shortage, as the Brexit decision prompted 4,000 Europeans to decide not to work in the NHS. Despite the government claiming that Brexit will free up £350 million per week to be allocated to the NHS, it failed to account for the slowdown in medical recruitment it would also prompt. Harsher immigration laws, the ‘seven-day NHS’ initiative deterring EU staff from signing up for longer hours, and the value of sterling and UK salaries decreasing are just some factors that have meant Britain has 4,285 fewer European doctors entering its workforce.

Moreover, the shortage of staff has led to increased workload and burnout for existing healthcare professionals. This can result in lower job satisfaction and a higher turnover rate, which further exacerbates the staffing shortage. In addition, the shortage of staff can also lead to lower quality of care and increased risk of medical errors.

The impact of the Backlog on areas of healthcare

Outstanding Operations

The backlog of outstanding operations is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed. As of June 2021, the total number of people waiting for routine surgery in England alone had reached a record high of 5.3 million. This is a significant increase from pre-pandemic levels, and it is estimated that the backlog will take years to clear.

The impact of this backlog cannot be overstated, as delays in surgical procedures can lead to increased pain, disability, and even death. To address this issue, the NHS has set up a £160 million fund to help tackle the backlog, which will be used to fund additional surgical hubs, hire more staff, and increase capacity.

Biomedical Sciences

Biomedical scientists are responsible for pioneering innovation in healthcare. Most recently, their work has been crucial to understanding the intricacies of the immune system in fighting against infectious diseases and developing a class of antibiotics and a universal vaccine for rapidly mutating viruses, such as COVID-19.

However, the immediate closure of several COVID-19 mass testing centres has left many HCPC-registered biomedical and clinical scientists redundant. Despite their skills and expertise playing a crucial role in the administering of virus testing, they are now being left to search for new roles in the health sector with little to no advice on how they can contribute to alleviating the elective care backlog.

In instances where biomedical scientists attempt to enter some healthcare institutions, they are met with the challenge of workforce recruitment training and retention. Retention problems arise as biomedical professionals realise that there are, in some instances, better-paid jobs with less extensive workloads elsewhere

Photo by Julia Koblitz on Unsplash

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and Language Therapy is another area where the backlog has had a significant impact. According to recent reports, more than 200,000 children in the UK have been waiting for over a year to access Speech and Language Therapy. 

This is a worrying trend, as early intervention is crucial for children with speech and language difficulties. The longer they wait, the harder it becomes for them to catch up with their peers.

The backlog is also having a significant impact on adults, with waiting times for Speech and Language Therapy appointments increasing from an average of 12 weeks to up to 18 months in some cases. 


Dietetics is another area where the backlog has had a significant impact. According to recent reports, more than 50% of dietitians in the UK are experiencing high levels of burnout due to the increased workload caused by the pandemic.

Dietitians play a crucial role in helping patients manage a range of conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. With the backlog having a significant impact on patient care, some patients are waiting up to a year to access dietetic services. 


Diabetes problems are another area where the backlog is having a significant impact. According to recent reports, more than 4 million people in the UK are living with diabetes, and this number is expected to rise to 5 million by 2025. The pandemic has led to an increase in diabetes-related complications, including a 30% increase in diabetes-related amputations.

The backlog is also having a significant impact on diabetes care, with some patients waiting up to six months to access vital diabetes checks.

How the Locum staff can help alleviate the backlog

The backlog has been a pressing issue for some time, and while various solutions have been proposed, increased use of locum staff is one that could help alleviate the issue. Healthcare locums have a wealth of experience and are able to provide flexible and responsive services that can help reduce waiting times for appointments and procedures. By working with framework-approved, specialist locum agencies, healthcare institutions can better manage staffing shortages and ensure that patients receive the care they need in a timely manner.

Locum or agency staff can be a valuable resource to the UK healthcare industry in times of staff shortages and high demand. These temporary healthcare workers can provide a flexible and responsive solution to the backlog of outstanding operations, allowing the institutions to quickly increase its workforce without committing to permanent staffing.

Some key benefits to bringing on locum staff include:


A key benefit to using locum staff is the flexibility they offer. Unlike permanent staff, locum workers can be hired on an as-needed basis, meaning they can be quickly deployed to address the most urgent needs=. This means that locum staff can be used to help tackle the backlog in specific areas such as cancer care, radiology, and mental health services, among others.

Ease Pressure

Locum staff can also help reduce the pressure on existing permanent staff. There is a significant shortage of qualified healthcare professionals, and this is particularly acute in areas such as nursing, radiology, and pathology. By bringing in locum staff to support permanent staff, it can ease the burden on existing workers and ensure that they are able to deliver the best possible care to patients.

Cost Saving

By using locum staff, the NHS can avoid the costs associated with training and onboarding permanent staff, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

How Globe Locums can help the staffing crisis

Globe Locums is a leading healthcare recruitment company placing candidates into roles across the UK. We are in a position to help facilitate a better quality of care and safety for patients by helping to reduce the workforce gap. Agency workers can help resolve the issue of staffing shortfalls and ensure an appropriate amount of skilled healthcare professionals are present to support patients in secondary care settings. Employing them would also free up time for policymakers to pay more attention to installing a proper workforce framework.

As shown by the pandemic, the healthcare system is subject to fluctuations in demand which – if left – can lead to longer-term problems of excessive workload, increased staff fatigue, and staffing crisis. Agency workers help combat this problem as they are available at short notice to service various healthcare sectors – including biomedical science, nursing, audiology and more.

For more information regarding our services for immediate staffing requirements and wider Master Vendor solutions, please contact us.

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