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Rishi Sunak Pledges To "Train, Retain And Reform" NHS Workforce In Major New Plan

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to "train, retain and reform" the NHS workforce (Downing Street)

5 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to "train, retain and reform" the NHS workforce as he launched a long-awaited plan to tackle severe staff shortages in the health service.

In a press conference to launch the strategy, Sunak said the "challenges facing the NHS" have changed including the burden of illness and Britain's aging population. 

The Prime Minister said he intended to cut the number of overseas workers coming to the UK to work in the health service, and instead recruit more British staff. He pledged to train more than 24,000 nurses a year and increase the number of GP training places, as the number of health care workers leaving the NHS has started to increase. 

He said successive Labour and Conservative Government's had "ducked" NHS reform in the past. 

"This is a 15 year plan to deliver the biggest ever expansion of doctors and nurses we train. A plan to deliver better care in a changing world. The plan rests on three principles: train, retain and reform," he said.

"The proportion of people recruited overseas is around one in four. With our plan it will fall to around one in ten. 

"It is not enough just to have more doctors and nurses. We need to change the way they work so they can deliver better care for patients. Partly it's about seizing the opportunities about seizing the opportunities of AI."

Sunak said the Government had to do a better job at retaining NHS staff. The long-term plan, which is ahead of the 75th anniversary of the NHS’ creation on 5 July, will be supported by an extra of £2.4billion in funding by 2031.

The Government’s 15-year strategy will aim to fill 360,000 vacancies in the NHS workforce, which has been severely depleted in recent years as a result of factors including pay, Brexit and staff burnout, by increasing the number of apprenticeships and more junior doctors. 

Nurses and doctors will be able to train on wards immediately after their A-levels, allowing them to gain practical experience during academic studies. The doctors’ regulator, General Medical Council, will also be asked whether it can shorten medical degrees from five to four years. Junior doctors continue their postgraduate studies while working as doctors, so this will mean they can enter the workforce more quickly. 

The blueprint aims to increase the number of GP training places by 50 per cent over eight years.

Nurses will be allowed to enter work in May when they graduate, replacing current rules where they have to wait until September.

The plan aims to prevent fewer staff from leaving the health service after 42,400 staff resigned in quarter two of last year - the highest in a decade.

Writing in the Telegraph ahead of the plan's launch, Health Secretary Steve Barclay promised a “radical modernisation” to the health service “to tackle the pressures on staff that the NHS has faced in every decade of its existence”. Barclay said he would end this by “improving occupational health services, ongoing professional development funding for nurses and midwives and enhancing flexible working opportunities”.

The Government hopes the new plans will mean retaining an extra 130,000 staff will stay working in the NHS for longer. The Health Secretary wrote that plans to promise 30 hours a week of free childcare, which was announced in the Budget last year, would help keep healthcare workers in theri jobs. However, this will only apply for households with children who are nine months or younger.

For years the Conservatives have promised to reform the NHS. The blueprint of an original ten-year plan was published in January 2019 to prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases, and better access to mental health services for adults and children.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson in his 2019 election manifesto pledged to set out a long-term funding plan for the health service.

Johnson also said his Government would build 40 new hospitals over the next ten years, introduce 5,000 more nurses, create 50million more GP appointments, clamp down on “health tourism” and fix the crisis in social care.

The plans are set to be introduced as thousands of senior doctors yesterday threatened to hold a two-day strike next month. More than 86 per cent of eligible consultants voted for the strike on a 71 per cent turnout. 

The British Medical Association had already announced a two day strike on 20 and 21 July. The junior doctors strike, which will happen separately, will last for five days and end on 18 July.

NHS chiefs have warned this would “scupper” Rishi Sunak’s plans to cut NHS waiting times by the end of the year, according to the Times

Healthcare and the NHS is the second most important issue facing the country, according to a recent YouGov survey.

A&E 12 waiting times hit more than 30,000 people in May while monthly A&E attendances reached 2.2million in the same month. A record 7.4million people – more than 12 per cent of the population – were waiting to start treatment on the NHS in April. The health service has had eight million fewer appointments since the pandemic. Despite this the UK spends 11.9 per cent of total GDP on the NHS, according to the OECD.

The UK has an aging population, with more than one-fifth of the UK population aged 65 or over in 2019. This cohort is more likely to use the health service than any other demographic. 

The proportion of the population aged 75 and over is projected to rise from 8 per cent in 2018 to 13 per cent in 2043, according to a House of Commons report.

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