North Devon health bosses have rushed to staunch a £900,000 overspend on agency nursing staff. A leaked message to staff seen by the Gazette says the significant amount spent by Northern Devon Healthcare Trust in April and May cannot be sustained. It said recruitment and retention of nurses was a challenge and a common picture nationwide. In an effort to save money, use of report to duty nurses from a particular agency those pre-booked to maintain staffing levels will end, with staff asked to look at different ways of working to ensure patient safety. Figures released in May by the Royal College of Nursing showed the trust spent more than £4.1million on agency staff last year, compared to £802,943 in 2010. The trust said a number of issues led to the overspend in April and May, including introduction of a new nursing agency, high demand, implementation of safer staffing levels and changes in processes. The message to staff said the trust was working hard to ensure wards were properly staffed, adding thanks for providing exceptional patient care at continued times of pressure.Serious concernIt is cause for serious concern according to Councillor Dick Jones, North Devon Councils health and wellbeing portfolio holder, responding after we showed him the staff memo. It appears to be a huge overspend and that implies there must have been another equally huge amount spent in the same period, considered to be normal expenditure on agency staff, he said. It does seem to me the resources of the trust could, and probably should, be better managed, especially at a time when it is proposed there is a reduction in the number of in-patient community hospital beds in Ilfracombe, South Molton, Holsworthy and Bideford.Patients are priorityBut Darryn Allcorn, director of workforce and development at the trust, said: Our number one priority is to provide safe, high-quality care for our patients and we work hard to ensure safe staffing levels are maintained at all times. At times, often at very short notice, we need to be able to call on a flexible temporary workforce to ensure we continue to provide safe services. Our priority is to redeploy our own staff, use overtime or call on NHS bank staff, but when none of these options are available we will look to use agency cover as a last resort. We constantly review our use of agency staff and are one of nine NHS organisations in the South West who are working together closely to better manage the supply chain and reduce our spend.