Today
Mon 18 October 2021

A new report by the Health and Social Care Committee reveals how staff shortages of doctors, nurses and other clinicians have been exacerbated by the Coronavirus crisis

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt today warns that “workforce burnout” in the NHS and social care due to the Coronavirus pandemic “now presents an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the future functioning of both services”.

In a highly critical report from Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee, MPs criticise the NHS for not properly planning to recruit enough new doctors, nurses and other clinicians – shortages of which have been starkly exposed in the COVID-19 crisis.

Hunt, Conservative MP for South West Surrey, who chairs the committee, said: “Staff facing unacceptable pressure with chronic excessive workload was identified as a key driver of workforce burnout. It will simply not be possible to address the backlog caused by the pandemic unless these issues are addressed.

“Achieving a long-term solution demands a complete overhaul of workforce planning. Those plans should be guided by the need to ensure that the long-term supply of doctors, nurses and other clinicians is not constrained by short-term deficiencies in the number trained. Failure to address this will lead to not just more burnout but more expenditure on locum doctors and agency nurses.”

The report found that the pandemic has increased workforce pressures exponentially and that 92% of trusts had concerns about staff wellbeing, stress and burnout following the crisis.

“Witnesses told the committee of their worry about the ‘exhaustion of large groups of staff’ and we heard about staff who were going above and beyond in the face of their own trauma, with an ‘unimaginable’ impact on those who had to return to busy hospital wards after supporting people through the death of their loved ones over the phone,” it states.

“In social care, colleagues faced ‘heartbreak’ at the excess deaths of those for whom they were caring, coupled with a sense of feeling ‘abandoned’ as the focus early in the pandemic had been on the NHS.

“It is clear from the evidence collected by Government, the NHS and other organisations that staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in a way that has shone a light on deeply worrying divisions in society.”

The NHS faced shortages of around one in 10 or one in 12 staff in January 2020, before the pandemic fully hit, according to the report. In adult social care, it is estimated that 7.3% of roles were vacant during the financial year 2019-20, equivalent to approximately 112,000 vacancies at any one time.

The MPs heard evidence that the projected NHS workforce gap was likely to double over the next five years and that staff shortages were replicated in social care where the situation is described as “fragile”.

The MPs also criticise the way the NHS is funded in order to plan future workforce needs.

“It is clear that workforce planning has been led by the funding envelope available to health and social care rather than by demand and the capacity required to service that demand,” the report states. “Furthermore, there is no accurate, public projection of what health and social care require in the workforce for the next five to 10 years in each specialism. Without that level of detail, the shortages in the health and care workforce will endure, to the detriment of both the service provision and the staff who currently work in the sector.”

The committee says that it was “not persuaded that a combination of ministerial judgements and haggling between Government departments is a satisfactory substitute for objective long-term workforce planning for the NHS and care system”. 

The MPs recommend that, in its new Health and Care Bill, the Government should include provisions to require Health Education England to publish objective, transparent and independent annual reports on workforce shortages and future staffing requirements that cover the next five, 10 and 20 years, including an assessment of whether sufficient numbers are being trained. They also recommend that such workforce projections cover social care as well as the NHS.

The report calls for a radical change, whereby both the NHS and social care are planned together; and also for a change in culture of the NHS, whereby staff are not only listened to but organisations act on what staff tell them needs to be done.

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