The government has failed to “protect” nursing posts in the same way as doctors, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has claimed.
It warned the NHS is “sleepwalking into a nursing crisis” as it reveals more than 61,000 NHS posts across England have either been axed or placed at risk since the coalition government came to power.
Official figures from the NHS Information Centre shows the NHS workforce overall has fallen by almost 21,000 since May 2010 with qualified nursing posts down by more than 6,000, or 2.18%.
The number of qualified midwives has grown by 943 or 4.68% since May 2010 while the number of qualified health visitors has remained broadly the same (down 12 posts), despite a government drive to recruit 4,200 more health visitors by 2015.
While the percentage of nurses working in community services has increased by 0.62% from 2001 to 2011, the number of district nurses has fallen by 3,590.
The RCN has called on the government to give district nursing the same attention as health visiting, with a programme of “concerted effort” to reduce the decline in numbers.
Howard Catton, head of policy and international at the RCN, said the decline in nursing numbers is now a “trend” and not “blips”.
“There is a lack of proper oversight nationally and it is a failure of any policy in action which is resulting in the loss of nursing staff,” he said.
“We are very concerned about what the impact of these numbers will be on patient care – not in 20 or 30 years time but in 2014/15.
“We want to put beyond all doubt of what is happening on the frontline.”
In stark contrast, the number of doctors has increased by more than 7,000 during the same period.
“There are many examples of ill thought through practices for short-term gain that is going to stack up problems in the future,” said Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN.
“We don’t want to get into a tit for tat argument with our medical colleagues. Where it is needed, we support a rise in doctors’ numbers – as we would in any sector of the NHS. It seems the government has got its act together for doctors and not for nurses.
“A rise in doctors does not justify such a decline in nursing numbers when demand for care is rising.”
Dr Carter predicted a greater reliance on bank and agency nursing in the future, which he claimed will work out more expensive “in the long run”.
In May 2012, the total number of NHS posts deemed “at risk” by the organisation was 55,366. The figure now stands at 61,276 – an increase of almost a 1,000 posts a month.
Catton predicted the rate of axed or at risk NHS jobs will increase albeit at a “slower pace” over the next few months.
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter criticised the RCN's for "scaremongering" and "not reflecting reality" in its claim the NHS is in "crisis".
"NHS performance is strong - waiting times and infection rates are at record low levels," he said.
"This Government fully supports the NHS and will put an extra £12.5 billion into the health services by 2015. But at the same time, the health service is changing - average lengths of stay in hospitals are about one third shorter than they were ten years ago, and there is more surgery where patients don't have to stay overnight on a ward.
"The numbers of patients treated as day cases is 500,000 more than it was two years ago.
"The NHS workforce is changing to reflect this and the NHS workforce of tomorrow will be different to what it is today. But changes must be decided at a local level, based on evidence that they will improve patient care."
Catton said there is no other rationale behind the loss of nursing jobs "than that of budget squeezes, cost cutting and so called efficiency savings”.
He also claimed the nursing supply line is being “choked off”.
Research by the RCN’s Frontline First campaign also shows the number of nursing places commissioned by universities in England declined by 4.6% in 2012 after falling 9.4% the previous year.
In London alone, it is claimed the city will lose up to 21% of its adult nursing training places. Dr Carter said it is “inevitable” the region will be left with a “skills and workforce shortage” as a result.
The RCN has urged the new body for education and training, Health Education England, to step in and to ensure the profession “is fit for the future”.
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