Next week’s Budget is the ‘perfect opportunity’ for the Government to tackle NHS workforce problems, health umbrella-groups have said.
The Royal College of Nursing and the NHS Confederation were reacting to a report, published yesterday by the National Audit Office, that highlighted the extent of nurse shortages in England.
The watchdog’s analysis found the NHS ‘does not have the nurses it needs’ despite a 5% increase in numbers between September 2010 and September 2019, from 272,000 to 286,000.
‘We need a proper workforce strategy,’ the RCN argued, adding that ‘next week’s Budget is the perfect opportunity for the Government to respond to the workforce problems of NHS and social care’.
Nick Ville, policy director of NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: ‘Next week’s Budget is an opportunity for the Government to make good on its promise of 50,000 more nurses with extra funding beyond the planned investment of £20.5bn to create the additional posts needed to meet rising demand.’
The NAO highlighted ‘substantial’ reductions in some areas of nursing despite an overall rise in numbers, such as a 38% drop in the number of learning disability nurses since 2010.
It also noted the number of applications for nursing degrees ‘dropped significantly’ after student nurse bursaries were axed in 2017. There was a 3% fall in nursing students in 2018.
Universities accepted less qualified students onto courses in 2018 to offset the drop in interest, the report noted, with an average of one A-level dropping by one grade for each student in 2018 compared to 2016.
The document also raised questions about the policy to ‘rely on the higher education market’ to provide enough student nurses when ‘it is not providing the number and type of nurses the NHS needs’.
Health Education England (HEE) lost responsibility for commissioning undergraduate nursing place in 2017. Now numbers are determined by the higher education market.
In addition, it found barriers such as backfill costs, are putting off employers from expanding apprenticeships including for the new nursing associate role.
The report also suggested a ‘step change in the recruitment of overseas nurses’ with recent national initiatives to increase numbers ‘not meeting their targets’.
For example, the Health Education England overseas recruitment programme - ‘global learners’ – attracted around 1,600 nurses in 2018 and 2019, against a target of 2,500.
RCN director of nursing, policy and practice Susan Masters said: ‘We are calling for investment to remove financial barriers for nursing students, by paying for tuition fees and providing grants for the real costs of living.’
She also said patient safety was at risk until there was a law clarifying who in Government was responsible and accountable for the nursing workforce.
Ville added: ‘Recruitment is only part of the solution as we also need to provide better support for existing staff so that we are more successful in retaining them as part of our current workforce. The pressure on the imminent People Plan to address this is building.’
The NAO report was intended to assess the workforce issues the NHS People Plan – which is due to be published over the next three months – should address.
It was based on interviews with staff across the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement, and Health Education England, as well as documentation including the Interim NHS People Plan and NHS Long Term Plan.
The Government has recently committed to recruiting 50,000 more nurses by 2025 although doubts have been voiced over how achievable this target is.