Improved career progression for healthcare assistants and conversion of agency staff to permanent employees, as well as the continued use of overseas recruitment, will be used in a multi-pronged approach to tackle the current staffing shortage, according to the chief nursing officer for England.
NHS England is “looking across the board” at a range of strategies to close the “short-term” gap between nurse vacancies and the number of registrants available to fill them, Jane Cummings told MPs last week.
“Ultimately the health service needs to pay the going rate relative to the private sector in order to recruit and retain the staff we need”
NHS England’s senior team was questioned by the Commons’ health select committee on the issues facing the health service. It was the the MPs’ first session since the new government was formed.
They were asked by committee member Helen Whately, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, whether there was enough of a supply of home grown nurses to reduce overseas recruitment – which has become increasingly relied upon in recent years.
The CNO denied there was a problem with the supply of nurses in the UK, noting that the number of applications to undergraduate nursing programmes significantly exceeded the course places available.
She highlighted recent predictions by national workforce planning body Health Education England that increases in training places would provide 23,000 extra nurses by 2019.
But she said NHS England would be looking at a range of methods to fill the current “short- term” gap between vacancies and nurses.
These will include creating more opportunities for HCAs to see their skills recognised beyond the recently introduced care certificate, said Ms Cummings.
She referred to plans mooted following a recent major review of education and training for nurses, which included a recommendation that HCAs should be able to use their existing experience to complete undergraduate nurse programmes in less than three years.
“We want to look at what are the competencies that are needed and how do we allow healthcare assistants to be able to progress to do different things, and then potentially to use those qualifications to enter nurse training,” said Ms Cummings.
Earlier on in the session, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens also noted the importance of converting temporary nursing staff into permanent workers.
He said: “The single most important thing we’ve go to do to stabilise provider finance this year is to dial back the spending on agency staffing.”
In his first interview with Nursing Times earlier this year, Mr Stevens earmarked cutting nurse agency spending as a key priority.
MPs also heard suggestions from Mr Stevens that recently announced proposals for councils to save £200m from public health budgets “would not be a smart approach” in the future.
However, he said it was too early to know what the exact impact of the cuts would be on frontline services commissioned by local authorities, such as family planning, sexual health and obesity clinics.
Meanwhile, he responded to a question about the recent government announcement of further pay restraint for public sector workers over the next four years.
“In the fullness of time, ultimately the health service needs to pay the going rate relative to the private sector in order to recruit and retain the staff we need,” said Mr Stevens.
However, in light of the current focus on seven-day services, NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh did tell MPs he would shortly publish research confirming a “weekend effect” in the NHS, including higher mortality.
Sir Bruce said his work was due to be published soon, but told MPs it would support previous research showing there was higher mortality at weekends.
He said the research showed patient mortality increased by 10% compared to a weekday for those admitted on a Saturday, and by 15% for those admitted on a Sunday.
He also said “there was pretty clear evidence of a weekend effect” starting on Friday and carrying on into Monday.
He said there was a 2% rise in mortality for patients admitted on a Friday and a 5% increase for those admitted on a Monday.