NHS has 43,000 fewer nurses than it needs, government spending watchdog warns
The NHS has 43,000 fewer nurses than it needs, according to the public spending watchdog.
A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) warned ministers that rising demand for NHS services alongside a failure to tackle barriers for new recruits had led to significant vacancy rates across many parts of the health service.
Despite an overall 5% increase in the number of nurses employed between 2010 and 2017, a new report from the watchdog warned that certain specialties and regions still face major staffing challenges.
Boris Johnson has vowed to recruit 31,000 new nurses by 2024-25 and retain a further 18,500 who may otherwise have left, including through the reversal of cuts to bursaries for student nurses.
But according to the analysis, nursing vacancy rates are as high as 16% in some mental health trusts, while London faces a major shortfall of around 15%.
Meanwhile the report warned that delays in government schemes to boost nursing numbers could lead to extra money from the NHS's long-term funding plan being spent on short-term fixes to plug staffing gaps.
"There is a significant time lag before policies to train more new nurses can have impact, meaning greater reliance in the short term on strategies such as overseas recruitment and improving retention," they said.
And it said there was a "continued risk the NHS will be unable to use the extra funding from the long-term settlement optimally because of staffing shortages and having to use more expensive agency staff to deliver additional services".
The study also highlighted the Government's decision to cut student bursaries in 2017, saying it had led to sluggish enrollment in nursing courses, resulting in the Department of Health failing to hit its 2018-19 and 2019-20 targets to increase student nurse numbers by 25%.
Responding to the report, Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said: "As the coronavirus spreads, the importance of the NHS and nurses who look after us becomes ever more apparent.
"There are 44,000 nursing vacancies. Plans to increase the numbers of nurses starting degrees have failed to meet expectations.
"It takes 3-4 years for policies to train new nurses to have an impact. The governments' People Plan must be fully funded and finally start to tackle the real reasons why there are not enough nurses."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "There are already record numbers of nurses in our NHS, up by over 8,000 compared to the same time last year – and we will deliver 50,000 more nurses over the next five years.
"We’re taking immediate action to reduce vacancies including funding for 5,000 more student training placements a year and supporting greater international recruitment.
"From September we’re also giving nursing students at least £5,000 a year to help secure the staff we need for the future."