Health

Union claims nursing hit by 'hidden workforce crisis'

nurses

NHS trusts trying to recruit more nurses in the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal may struggle, a nursing union is warning.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) says there are nearly 20,000 unfilled posts in England.

And it says more than a fifth of trusts are recruiting nurses from abroad.

The government says staffing levels have improved - there are now over 1,350 more qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors than a year ago.

The RCN sent requests under the Freedom of Information Act to all acute, mental health and community NHS trusts in England as part of its three-year-old Frontline First campaign against job cuts.

Some 61 organisations replied - representing a response rate of 24%.

The trusts who responded had an average vacancy rate of 6% - though in some trusts this was as high as 16%.

The union believes this constitutes "a hidden workforce crisis".

The RCN asked for the data because the government stopped collecting it in 2011. The last available figures showed a vacancy rate of 2.5%.

More trusts - 140 - answered questions about overseas recruitment. These replies showed 22% were recruiting nurses from abroad, while a further 9% were considering the possibility.

Earlier this year an inquiry highlighted the "appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people" at Stafford Hospital in Staffordshire.

The Francis report found systemic failures that went right to the top of the NHS in England.

On Tuesday the RCN's head of policy, Howard Catton, said: "In recent months we've seen the 'Francis effect' after the report into Stafford Hospital, with some trusts unfreezing posts that were vacant.

"But when they've gone to the market to try to recruit staff, they've found it difficult. This is because there's been a cut in the number of nursing student places.

"And overseas recruitment is more difficult, because there's a shortage of many thousands of nurses across the EU."

Official figures show 5,870 nursing posts have been lost in England since 2010.

Autumn response

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: "Unsafe staffing levels have been implicated in a number of high profile investigations into patient safety.

"We call on employers in the NHS to put an end to boom-and-bust workforce planning and develop clear standards to ensure safe staffing levels are met, supported by robust inspection based on reliable data."

Health Minister Norman Lamb said: "Nursing leaders have been clear that hospitals should publish staffing details and the evidence to show the numbers are right for the services they deliver.

"Patient-safety experts agree that safe staff-patient ratios should be set locally.

"We will be announcing more on our plans to guide staffing decisions in our full response to the Francis report later this autumn.

"Overall, the number of clinical staff in the NHS has increased by nearly 4,100 and the number of admin staff has fallen by 22,800.

"The chief inspector of hospitals will be able to take action if trusts are found to be compromising patient care by not having the right number of staff on wards."

Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer for England, said a growing number of Trusts were reviewing and increasing their nurse staffing levels to meet local patient need.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "David Cameron is making matters worse. We should be bringing on the next generation of British nurses, but he's cutting trainee nurse posts whilst wasting money on overseas recruitment."

The organisation NHS Employers said the figures needed to be seen in the context of the 347,000 qualified nurses working in the NHS every day. Every month the NHS recruits around 10,000 staff through natural turnover, it said.

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