Nursing vacancies have plummeted by nearly a third since last summer, figures collated by Nursing Times reveal.
The figures, taken from the NHS Jobs website, show there were 2,306 posts advertised at the beginning of August 2009, but nine months later there were only 1,552.
This follows warnings from the Royal College of Nursing that NHS trusts are planning to slash thousands of jobs and as Nursing Times has learnt of nurses being asked to take pay cuts to prevent redundancies.
RCN employment relations advisor Gerry O’Dwyer said the figures indicate employers may be freezing vacancies in response to the public spending squeeze.
He warned against arbitrarily reducing staffing levels or replacing registered nurses with healthcare assistants.
He said: “To yank someone out isn’t just about removing a job, it’s about moving a skill set and staffing ratios. There’s a fundamental difference between a band four and five job. The roles aren’t necessarily interchangeable.”
He said the reduction in job opportunities might also be due to fewer people choosing to leave their posts at a time of financial uncertainty.
Although NHS terms and conditions are transferred when people move jobs, this does not apply to employment protection. For example, it is not possible for a nurse to claim unfair dismissal unless they have been employed by the same organisation for a year.
Unison head of nursing Gail Adams said: “We’re certainly expecting problems, and when we expect problems, people don’t tend to move.”
However she said the trend could also be a result of better workforce planning if trusts were holding posts back for newly qualified nurses, to prevent graduate unemployment.
She doubted registered nurses were being replaced with healthcare support workers, saying the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust investigation had put the “fear of God” into trusts considering reducing nursing staff.
While there has been a steady decline in the total number of nursing jobs advertised on NHS Jobs since last August, the biggest drop has been among posts with salaries of between £20,000 and £30,000.
There were 1,637 of these jobs advertised in the first week of August 2009 but only 1,029 at the beginning of this month – a 37 per cent fall.
NHS Employers head of employment services Karen Charman said not all advertisements appear publicly. But she added: “The workforce was expected to become more static during this challenging time for the NHS and this will be reflected in job advertising numbers.”
NHS Employers has encouraged trusts to treat vacancies as possible redeployments for existing staff.
Some trusts are also attempting to save posts by asking staff to take a pay cut, Nursing Times has learnt. For example, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Trust has adopted a principle of “employment over earnings”.
Its board papers state: “In practice this means that the trust board is committed to maintaining employment for as many staff as it possibly can, whilst recognising that in order to do this there may need to be an adverse impact on individual earnings.”
Chief executive Tony Halsall said the trust needed to save at least £50m over the next four years.
He said: “We are currently working with our staff side colleagues to explore a range of options and will continue to consult with our staff.”
Meanwhile, unions are waiting to hear whether the new government will approve a national agreement for strategic health authorities to take on the role of co-ordinating transfers of nurses from one organisation to another, to avoid redundancies.
Unison senior national officer for health Mike Jackson said unions and employers reached a draft agreement before the election that SHAs would act as “clearing houses” for jobs, but it was never signed off.
He expects a decision could take several months. “Under the plan, for the first time the whole system would be cooperating to avoid redundancies,” he said.
It is also unclear whether the new government will continue to engage with trusts and unions through the social partnership forum, which was set up to promote discussions about NHS workforce policy.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “SHAs can help the redeployment of staff by giving staff access to vacancies through the NHS Jobs website.”
No decisions have been made yet on the working arrangements of the social partnership forum, he said.
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