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‘Lives at risk as learning disability nurse numbers flatline’

Child with Down's syndrome.


The RCN has urged the Government to ‘urgently re-double its efforts’ to recruit learning disability nurses because a shortage of staff could be putting lives at risk.

A report from the college, released today, also called for a dedicated learning disabilities minister or commissioner in each of the four UK nations ‘to protect the care and rights of patients’.

Official figures show the number of learning disability nurses working in the NHS in England has grown by just 22 since a record low three years ago, from 3,192 in June 2018 to 3,214 in February 2021. The workforce has been steadily shrinking from 5,553 in September 2009, when records began.

Johnathan Beebee, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the RCN and one of the authors of the report, said: ‘The shortage of nursing staff could be putting the lives of people with learning disabilities at risk.

‘It’s scandalous that in this day and age people with learning disabilities are still dying on average 25 years sooner than the general population. Specialist care can transform their lives,’ he added.

People with learning disabilities are more likely to have serious health conditions, such as congenital heart disease or respiratory illnesses, and die around 25 years sooner than the general population. The group were also up to six times more likely to die from Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic.

It also highlighted that community learning disability teams have faced ‘significant cuts’ since 2010. This has seen services redesigned and nurses redeployed, it said, adding that ‘re-investment in these teams is needed to counteract the cuts these teams have faced over the past 12 years’.

The report also called for:

  • Clear and accurate data about the learning disabilities nursing workforce to aid recruitment and retention. There is no official data for learning disability nurses working outside the NHS.
  • Adequate funding for learning disability services provided in social care.
  • A strategy to prevent the reoccurrence of the abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities, such as the cases highlighted at Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall Hospitals, which were closed as a result.
  • More funding for the education and training of learning disability specialist nurses.

Mr Beebee said learning disability is an ‘incredibly rewarding career’ that struggles to recruit ‘partly due to lack of recognition and identity for what learning disability nurses offer’. He added: ‘The RCN has a key role to play in encouraging more students and newly qualified nurses to specialise in this area.’

This comes as England’s chief nursing officer last week told the NHS Confederation’s annual conference that the number of learning disability nurses was ‘not increasing in the numbers we would like’.

Also speaking at the conference, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said the care backlog from the Covid crisis could represent ‘the biggest pressure on the NHS in its history’ but ‘absolutely’ committed to giving the NHS the funding to tackle it.