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Fri 4 December 2020

The Government needs to act rapidly to fill thousands of nursing vacancies in the NHS, a group of MPs has warned

The Government is facing an “emerging crisis” over nursing recruitment in the NHS, just as hospital admissions are starting to rise because of a second wave of COVID-19, a committee of MPs is warning.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that there are, at present, some 40,000 nursing vacancies, while a recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing suggests that up to 36% of nurses are thinking of leaving the profession after the strain caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The MPs say that they are “unconvinced” that a Government pledge to recruit 50,000 new nurses by 2025 will work – not least because it has not been planned properly by the NHS and there are acute difficulties with attracting people to the profession.

“The picture from the front line of nursing in the NHS and care homes is not good,” says Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC. “I fear with the strain of a huge shortage of nurses and the worrying reports of low morale and huge numbers considering leaving in the next year, we are facing an emerging crisis in nursing.”

The MPs claim that the NHS is currently trying to fill the shortage by recruiting nurses from overseas – but travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 mean that most of the new recruits simply cannot get to the UK.

Long-term plans to recruit nurses have been hit by poor organisation, according to the committee, with no national picture of how many different specialist nurses will be needed and where they should work.

“The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January 2019, did not have a complete assessment of the type and number of nurses needed to deliver the plan, leaving that to the People Plan promised for later in 2019,” the MPs say. “In December 2019, while the People Plan was still in development, the Government made a pledge to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2025.”

The People Plan has still not been published and will not be until after the Spending Review this Autumn.


‘A Disaster’

The MPs also describe nursing in care homes as “an afterthought” saying that the number of posts has fallen by more than 10,000 in the past eight years while total vacancies have risen to more than 5,000. The average vacancy rate is NHS trusts in England is 12% but is as high as 16% for mental health trusts and 15% in London.

One of the biggest failures has been the recruitment of student nurses, an onset of student loans replacing the bursary system. The Government aimed to recruit 10,000 new nurses but ended up with just 430 – 2% of the target. Since then, the Government has reintroduced some bursaries but only for nurses specialising in mental health and learning disabilities.

There has been an increase in applicants for nursing degrees, but the MPs note that the number of applicants is still below the figure seen in 2016.

“Removing the NHS bursary from nursing students in England has been a disaster,” UNISON head of health Sara Gorton told Byline Times. “[Student nurses] played a key role during the first peak, but still face high tuition fees. The new maintenance grants are an important start, but the Government must end student-funded fees altogether to tackle the scale of the staffing shortage.”


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