A WHOPPING £29million has been spent on agency staff by Southend Hospital in the past four years, the Echo can reveal.

The figure, released to the Echo under Freedom of Information laws, shows the hospital spent £4.19million on locums last year alone, up £1.34million on the previous year, while spending on agency nurses was up a quarter to £1.95million last year.

The hospital is now spending £1million a month on agency staff which has led to the £29million spend since 2010/11.

Part of the reason the hospital is having to rely on agency staff is because it has vacancies for 30 doctors and 119 nurses and has launched recruitment campaigns in Spain and Ireland to try to plug the gap.

Brian Shipley, the hospital’s director of finance, said: “The hospital will always use a level of agency staff, but recently we have been experiencing increased difficulty in recruiting experienced and trained staff particularly for some medical specialties and for nursing, largely through national shortages.

“The increased spend on medical and nursing agency staff reflects the increased usage.

“In addition to recruitment, retention can also be a challenge.”

The hospital lost seven doctors from A&E in January alone and recently had to declare a “major internal incident” and cancelled all non-urgent operations after struggling to cope with the number of patients turning up for treatment.

Dean Jones, from Southend Hospital’s Unison branch, said his organisation had been warning about staffing levels for a long time.

He said: “The recruitment is necessary, but we’ve been saying for years we’re understaffed.

Now after the Francis and Keogh reports, the Government has said it hast to publish staffing level statistics every month. I believe there is a national shortage of nurses, but we need the right calibre of nurses and we need more recruitment from within.

“There are a number of healthcare assistants already at the hospital who I believe want to further their career by becoming nurses.”

Basildon Hospital has also struggled to cut is agency cost and in 2012/13 spent £10.2million on temps, up from £6.5million in 2011/12.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the doctor’s union the British Medical Association, said: “Doctors in the NHS face increasingly challenging, high pressured and stressful work environments, often with limited resources and gruelling workloads across both weekdays and weekends. In some specialties, such as emergency medicine, this has contributed to a recruitment crisis and means because existing doctors are working flat out to meet rising demand an increasing number of locums are being used.

“While locums have always been an integral part of the NHS workforce when there are periods of high demand or staff absences, they should not be used as a long term solution to gaps in the NHS workforce.”