The government’s pledge to have 50,000 more nurses working in the NHS by April 2024 is inadequate to tackle the ‘crisis’ facing the health service, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
NHS workforce statistics from August 2023 – based on the number of nurses working in hospital and community health service and GP settings – showed the government was 2,722 short of the target made during its 2019 election manifesto.
However, RCN analysis has found that for every nurse recruited since 2019 in England, there are now an additional 68 waits for non-urgent NHS treatment across the country.
The RCN cited NHS England and government figures showing that the waiting list increased by 3.4 million between September 2019 and September 2023, from 4.4 million to 7.8 million.
According to RCN’s analysis, since the 2019 pledge, the patient waiting list for elective care has grown over four times faster than the number of nurses recruited.
Meanwhile, nursing staff numbers have increased by 16% while patient waiting lists have grown 70% since the target was set, the analysis found.
In addition, there has been little change in the official tally of nurse vacancies released by the NHS since the pledge, with 43,339 roles still unfilled in England’s registered nurse workforce compared with 43,542 in 2019.
The RCN said the figures showed that patient demand in England has ‘far outstripped modest growth of the NHS workforce’.
Patricia Marquis, RCN director for England, commented: ‘Not a single nurse will say that it feels like there are more staff now – they say the very opposite.
‘With patient numbers and demand is so high, staffing levels become dangerously inadequate.’
Ms Marquis described the government’s target as ‘political’ and ‘not based on calculation of patient needs’.
With half (48%) of new joiners to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) nursing register internationally recruited, the government must do more to support people to study nursing domestically, the RCN said.
Ms Marquis called for the abolition of tuition fees for nursing students, as well as ‘fair pay’ for staff.
‘Only then will there be enough nurses to give patients the care they need and deserve,’ she said.
With the government’s Autumn Statement due next week, Ms Marquis urged the new health secretary to ‘secure urgent investment in the nursing workforce now, to keep the staff we already have and recruit a new generation’.
In recent years, several health and nursing leaders have warned the 50,000 more nurses target would not be enough to meet demand and in December 2020, the Health Foundation warned key services may still be short of staff even if the government reaches its target of 50,000 more nurses by 2025.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Cutting waiting lists is one of the government’s top five priorities and, despite disruption from strikes, 18 month waits have been reduced by more than 90% from their peak in September 2021.
‘There are record numbers of nurses working in the NHS with over 17,600 more than this time last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses.
‘The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan – backed by more than £2.4 billion – will significantly expand domestic education, training and recruitment and deliver more nurses than ever before by almost doubling the number of adult nurse training places by 2031.’