Years of continuing growth in the number of registered nurses in the NHS has come to an end with the workforce now beginning to shrink, official figures show.
However, while there has been a pronounced fall in number of overall nurses employed, the healthcare assistant workforce continues to increase – fuelling existing fears that the nursing skill mix is becoming diluted.
The data from the latest NHS Workforce Census, published last week, showed the service employed 335,357 whole time equivalent nurses on September 30 last year, 650 less than 12 months earlier.
Although still higher than the 2008 total, it is the first year-on-year fall in more than a decade.
The reduction in registered staff is largely the result of a drop of 414 in the number of WTE practice nurses, which fell to 13,167 – continuing a downward trend that began in 2006 – and in bank staff, which dropped by 2,487 to 13,051.
Growth in the number of HCAs continued, but is slowing, the figures show. The 43,212 WTE staff employed in 2010 represented an increase of 881 on 2009.
James Buchan, professor of health sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, said: “The tailing off of growth of NHS registered nurses, while expected, is the end of a long period of growth.”
He highlighted that the data did not distinguish between different grades of HCA, giving little indication of how fast growth in higher band assistant practitioners was. “They are likely to be management’s favoured skill mix solution over the next few cash constrained years,” he told Nursing Times.
Speaking on the drop in practice nurses, Royal College of Nursing primary care advisor Lynn Young said: “I don’t think this is as simple as GPs being greedy and not employing nurses. I know there are many GPs, particularly in London and the South East, who wanted to recruit practice nurses and can’t get them.”
She added: “We do have an increasing skill mix in general practice – we’re seeing an increase in healthcare assistants being brought in.”
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