A new Health Foundation report has highlighted that national policy and planning for the NHS workforce in England is not fit for purpose. The report also found high staff turnover and instability across the NHS, and a drop in the number of trainee nurses.

Rising pressure: the NHS workforce challenge has analysed trends in the NHS workforce and found increasing cause for concern, including:

  • The NHS workforce increased by 2% in the year to April 2017, but this masks critical variations – a rise in managers and consultants but a drop in nurses (0.2% decrease in the year to April 2017) and GPs (0.7% decrease from December 2016 to end of June 2017).
  • Increasing admissions and decreasing nurse numbers risks overstretching nurses and undermining progress made in nurse numbers since the Francis report. Outside hospitals there have been declines in community nurse and health visitor numbers.
  • The government has promised 21,000 new posts in mental health by 2020, but there are reservations about whether the target is achievable, or will provide staff with the right level of skills.
  • 1,220 fewer students had started undergraduate nursing degrees in England this year, based on data from the end of the university clearing round. While the number of 18 and 19 year olds increased, there has been a big fall in older students. 
  • The government is aiming to recruit 2,000 GPs from overseas over the next three years, but just 38 were recruited in the first six months of 2017.

Increasing workforce instability in the NHS – caused by a high turnover of staff – is costing the NHS both financially and by reducing continuity of care for patients. This varies markedly across the country, with the annual leaver rate at some trusts hitting 30%. At these trusts a huge amount of time, money and management effort is required on recruitment, just to maintain the same headcount.

Further consequences of the lack of coherent of workforce planning can be seen in the muddled implementation of the switch from bursaries to student loans for nurse training, which was intended to allow the number of student nurses to expand.

However, there has so far been a drop of 1,220 in the number of students starting undergraduate nursing courses this year. The report identifies the two biggest reasons for this as the poor implementation of the reforms, and even poorer communication from government departments.

Significantly, there has been insufficient focus on the specific needs of older applicants, who until 2017 accounted for 40% of the total number.

Anita Charlesworth, Director of Research and Economics at the Health Foundation, said: ‘There is a growing gap between rhetoric about the government’s ambitions to grow the NHS workforce, and the reality of falling numbers of nurses and GPs.'

‘This year has been characterised by a series of one-off announcements and initiatives, beset by unrealistic timescales and no overall strategy.

‘The challenges and risks ahead for the NHS are well known, and must be met by collective action, led by the government, to put in place a coherent strategy to provide a sustainable workforce for the NHS.

‘With winter approaching and staffing numbers in critical areas once again declining, the NHS will be relying on the efforts of its staff to meet the inevitable rising pressures. But in the long-term, both the people working for and the people using the NHS deserve better.’

Media contact

Jack Cutforth
jack.cutforth@health.org.uk
0207 664 4623 

Further reading

Research report

Rising pressure: The NHS workforce challenge

October 2017
Research report

This report analyses the profile and trends of the NHS workforce. It also focuses on two pressure...

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