Although agency nurses have been used for years within the NHS, the move by Pontefract Hospitals NHS Trust is believed to be the first time that all the nursing staff of one ward have been recruited en masse from the private sector.
The trust, in West Yorkshire, handed over the staffing of its 29-bed Ward Four after inviting agencies to bid competitively for a contract in much the same way that it employs domestic and catering staff. The ward where the private team will work is a new unit being opened to meet the winter care crisis, particularly among elderly patients.
Last week, the selected agency, LPNS, began advertising in the local press for nurses.
Yesterday medical organisations and politicians criticised the move as part of the creeping privatisation of the NHS. The Royal College of Nursing condemned the selection and said it flew in the face of repeated assurances by the health secretary, Stephen Dorrell, that medical services would not be contracted out. RCN assistant general secretary Tom Bulger described the Pontefract trust's move as "in conflict with Stephen Dorrell's promises that services would be maintained within NHS provision".
"We're very concerned about it - it's got to be the thin end of the wedge," he said. "By all means use an agency to find extra staff but why push the whole lot out and provide them with the management as well?" he added.
The Labour Party said the move was another "absolutely appalling" example of the creeping privatisation of the NHS and highlighted the contracting out of more and more clinical services.
Labour MP for Pontefract and Castleford, Geoffrey Lofthouse, said: "These are the opening shots to the privatisation of services within the NHS and it is very worrying."