A growing number of vacant nursing posts represent a “hidden workforce crisis” for the health service, the Royal College of Nursing has warned in a report this week.
Nearly 20,000 nursing vacancies are currently unfilled in England, it claimed, based on evidence collated from freedom of information responses. The findings echo those of a separate investigation by Nursing Times last month.
The government stopped collecting data on NHS staff vacancies in 2011, with the last available data suggesting the vacancy rate for nursing posts was 2.5% in 2010.
The RCN said responses from 61 acute and mental health trusts suggest this figure is now running at an average of 6% – though in some places it is as high as 16%.
The report also found that 22% of trusts surveyed were attempting to fill vacancies by recruiting from abroad, with another 9% considering the possibility.
RCN head of policy Howard Catton said data on vacancies was a “key indicator”, as it showed the difference between the number of staff actually in post and the number needed to ensure patient safety and quality of care.
He said the findings indicated that many trusts were reversing a trend over the last few years of cutting posts or freezing recruitment in response to concerns about patient safety highlighted by the Francis report into care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.
Mr Catton’s comments reconfirm findings published last month by Nursing Times, which first revealed a “Francis effect” that was driving trusts to seek more nurses – in many cases leading them to recruit overseas due a shortage of supply in the UK.
Of 102 trusts that responded to Nursing Times, 73 had allocated more money to employing nurses in 2012-13, compared with the previous financial year. In addition, 59 had increased their number of healthcare assistants.
In addition, 40 trusts had actively recruited nurses from overseas in the last 12 months – leading to 1,360 nurses coming to work in England. A further 41 trusts told Nursing Times they planned to follow suit in the next 12 months.
But Mr Catton warned that a wider global nursing shortage would have implications for trusts seeking to solve their problems by recruiting overseas.
“The ability to go overseas quickly in response to shortages won’t be as easy an option in future,” he told Nursing Times.
The RCN’s Running the Red Light report is the latest from its Frontline First campaign, which was launched in July 2010 to monitor the impact of NHS efficiency savings targets.
Responding to the report, NHS England chief nursing officer Jane Cummings said it was “vital” the NHS had the right workforce to deliver high quality care “first time, every time”.
“We know that a growing number of trusts are reviewing and increasing their nurse staffing levels to meet local patient need which is very positive,” she added.
“Also, many trusts use qualified nursing staff on a temporary basis which provides flexibility and additional cover when there are vacancies or gaps in staffing to ensure safe staffing levels,” she said.
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