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As Coronavirus spreads, NHS staffing shortages are systemic

As Coronavirus spreads, NHS staffing shortages are systemic
4 min read

Government plans to re-register nurses from a retired workforce is not a credible plan and reveals how ill-prepared we are to deal with such eventualities, says Mohammad Yasin MP. 

The need to recruit and retain an adequate health and care workforce is one the greatest challenges facing the NHS.

There are currently around 100,00 vacancies across the board including 40,000 vacancies in substantive nursing posts especially in mental health, learning disability, primary, cancer care and community nursing. 

From primary care onwards, this is having an alarming impact on patient care with the starkest example being the number of nurses being forced to treat patients in corridors with all the indignity and lack of privacy this brings.

Patient need is rising faster than the growth of our nursing workforce. For every NHS nurse employed in hospitals last year, there were an equivalent of 214 admissions. 

The Government response is to talk up the small increases in staff numbers, but hospitals and other services are struggling more than ever because of hospitals experiencing the biggest funding squeeze in history. A&Es are overstretched and overcrowded with the worst waiting times on record and increasing numbers of people are waiting too long for operations.

Set against this background, with no give whatsoever in the system, nurses and doctors have warned that the impact of Brexit combined with the new immigration system could lead to serious disruption and safety concerns for patients.

The need to care for returning emigrants would also create huge funding shortfalls at a time when health and care need it most.

Since the Brexit vote over 13,000 European nurses and midwives have left the UK workforce. Hospital Trusts have been filling the gaps with overseas recruitment drives but the Government’s hostile immigration plans close the door to lower-paid healthcare support workers and care assistants from overseas, who currently fill significant numbers of posts in the health and care workforce.

While recruitment of overseas staff shouldn’t be used as a replacement for domestic workforce supply, it’s clear that it will need to continue in the short to medium-term so that health and social care services in the UK can continue to function.

Maintaining arbitrary salary thresholds will not enable health and social care services in the UK to recruit and retain the numbers of staff needed to meet the needs of the UK’s population.

The Long-Term Plan for the NHS is dependent on having enough nurses.  The Government published an interim workforce plan in June 2019 which identified a need to prioritise urgent action on nursing shortages, but the full five-year People Plan is now overdue. And we still have no understanding of the Government’s long- awaited plans to support and fund social care.

The Government has made several pledges related to the nursing workforce, including an additional 50,000 nurses in the NHS by 2024/25, introducing a nursing grant, and devising a fast-track visa for NHS workers, including nurses.

But the promises do not amount to a plan explaining exactly how the 50,000 increase would be met by policies to ensure fewer nurses leave the NHS.

We have grants of 5,000 per year for nursing students in England. For some, this can go up to £8,000. However, these do not reflect the true cost of living or the costs of tuition fees.

The staffing shortages are systemic. They require political will and action, yet the Government response is slow and uncertain. The People Plan must include bold and funded policies to recruit, train and retain vital nursing staff to meet the needs of our population.

On the brink of a Coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to see how the NHS workforce can cope. Government plans to re-register nurses from a retired workforce is not a credible plan and reveals how ill-prepared we are to deal with such eventualities.

We need decisive action. But we aren’t getting it from a Government drowning in Brexit uncertainty.

Nursing staff and their patients need action now. We can no longer afford to delay.

Mohammad Yasin is Labour MP for Bedford.

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