SPENDING on temporary doctors at Southampton General Hospital’s accident and emergency department has rocketed in the past four years.

New figures reveal spending on locums at the hospital’s A&E ward rocketed from £21,618 in 2009-10 to £446,319 in 2012-13.

The hospital said the huge rise in locum use was down to increasingly high demands for emergency care and a shortage in the number of medical staff.

Nationwide, the data obtained by the Labour Party showed that spending on locums across the UK rose to £83.3m last year from £52m in 2009-10.

It has led to a furious political row between Labour and the Coalition Government, while some doctors have described the increase in spending as “absurd” and like “throwing money down the drain”.

Locums can earn £1,500 per shift, more than four times what it would cost to employ a permanent doctor in the same role.

A spokesman for the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust said: “Like many other large regional hospital trusts across the UK, we have been experiencing high demand for urgent care – regularly seeing more than 300 patients a day in our emergency department – with activity levels up by between four per cent to seven per cent year-on-year.

“We have increased significantly the number of doctors per shift and the hours they work compared to 2009 to contend with the growing pressure this presents, but have had to do so at a time of a national shortage in the number of emergency medicine trainees.

“As a result, experienced locum doctors have played – and, when necessary, will continue to play – an important part in ensuring we maintain the highest possible standards of quality and safety for patients using our emergency department at all times.”

The rising i the use of locums has been criticised by some within the medical profession, with Dr Cliff Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, saying such spending was “unwise”.

“It is not an efficient way of spending NHS money and can be damaging for morale when doctors work alongside other, sometimes less qualified doctors, who are earning much more.

“When people say there’s no money, there is – we’re throwing money down the drain. It’s absurd.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said the increasing costs were down to the Coalition’s “disastrous” reorganisation of the NHS.

But Conservative health minister Dan Poulter hit back, saying the first warnings about the challenges facing A&E departments surfaced in 2004 under the Labour Government.

Rob Kurn, manager of watchdog Healthwatch Southampton, said: “We recognise the pressures on A&E, particularly in the winter months, and the need to ensure the service is properly staffed and safe. Whilst local people can help by only using A&E when it’s really necessary, the healthcare system needs to take a new approach to meet the needs of modern society.”

He added that a new Better Care programme, which will be launched next year and features greater co-operation between the hospital, community health services and GPs, could help people to avoid going to hospital in the first place, and leave more quickly when they are admitted.