The Government has said it is on track to achieve its target of 50,000 more nurses by March 2024, although groups such as nurses in general practice and health visitors have not seen improvements.
In an update on the pledge published today, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) revealed the latest data shows there are 27,000 more full-time equivalent (FTE) nurses since it made the manifesto commitment – up from 300,904 in September 2019 to 327,907 in December 2021.
However, despite the rise across healthcare settings, the numbers of nurses in GP settings has seen no growth from 16,352 FTE nurses in September 2019 to 16,351 in December 2021.
In addition, health visiting numbers have dipped from 6,981 to 6,194 in the same period. Yet health visitors are excluded from the target, which the DHSC said only covers nurses in NHS provider and GP settings because these are easier to track through NHS Digital data.
DHSC expects nurses to leave
In the update, the DHSC said it expects ‘significant numbers of nurses’ to leave the the workforce either permanently or temporarily – such as through retirement or maternity leave – by March 2024, which means it will need to recruit more than 50,000 FTE nurses.
Compared to September 2019 when it made the pledge, it said it could expect the following increases in the nursing workforce:
- 72,000 more nurses from education and training
- 52,000 from international recruitment
- 29,000 from the wider labour market
- 7,000 from retention.
And the following decreases:
- 92,000 NHS leavers
- 17,000 through ‘other moment’ such as non-nursing roles in the NHS, nurses reducing the hours they work and so reducing FTE, and nurses on parental or carers’ leave.
This means there would be an extra 50,000 nurses in the NHS compared to September 2019, up from 301,000 to 351,000. This would be achieved through a combination of domestic recruitment, international recruitment and reducing the rate of nurses leaving the NHS, it said.
But it said the number of FTE additional nurses in March 2024 to potentially be as low 42,000 or as high as 61,000 under current plans. For example, it acknowledged that the rates of nurse leaving the profession and student nurses leaving courses is hard to predict.
‘50,000 is a political target’
Pat Cullen, RCN chief executive, called on the Government to be ‘transparent’ about how it calculated the 50,000 target and whether that number will lead to ‘safe and effective care’.
She continued: ‘Independent health policy experts share our concerns about the workforce not growing at the scale and pace needed for health and care services. This is a political target in the absence of a proper health and care workforce strategy.’
Currently, the Government makes no official projections on workforce numbers needed, although healthcare groups have been calling for a requirement for these figures to be published.
Ms Cullen also highlighted the number of unfilled nursing posts has ‘risen not fallen’, with the latest statistics showing FTE vacancies at 39,652 in December 2021, up from 36,277 in December 2020.
In addition, she raised concerns the Government ‘disproportionately hiring from overseas without large scale efforts to grow the nursing workforce within the UK appears short-sighted and could be understood as ethnically questionable’.
Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘We committed to deliver 50,000 more nurses in the NHS by 2024, and we are over halfway to meeting this target with over 27,000 more nurses already in our NHS compared to September 2019.
‘I’m grateful to all our NHS nurses who’ve shown immense commitment during the pandemic, working tirelessly to look after us and our loved ones. It is this dedication that is inspiring the next generation and ensuring the NHS continues to provide world-class healthcare.’
Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, said: ‘While there is much more to do, the progress we have made with over 27,000 more nurses now working across the NHS in England than in September 2019, is testament to the tremendous efforts being made to recruit, retain and develop more nurses, and ensure the NHS remains one of the best places in the world to work and receive care.’
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