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CNO regains lost status through key government advisory role

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The chief nursing officer role in England will once again have a place at the table in Whitehall following pressure from campaigners, it has been confirmed to Nursing Times.

The move has been welcomed by union chiefs and key nursing figures who said it was a “grave error” to have side-lined the CNO from central government.

“I’m pleased the secretary of state has recognised he needs expert briefing on this”

Elaine Maxwell

Starting in the role at the start of this year, Dr Ruth May now sits across NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Dr May will act as health secretary Matt Hancock’s direct advisor on nursing policy.

Nursing Times approached the DHSC to determine the exact nature of its relationship with the CNO role.

In a statement, it said: “The chief nursing officer’s new role will sit across NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care. 

“This will mean the chief nursing officer plays a significant role in discussions that the secretary of state has, advising him on any key issues that impact the nursing profession,” it added.

Prominent nurse academic, Dr Elaine Maxwell, who is currently clinical adviser at the National Institute for Health Research’s dissemination centre, said: “I’m delighted to see a senior nurse advisor back in the centre of government.

Elaine Maxwell

Elaine Maxwell

Elaine Maxwell

“Nurses contribute across a wide range of setting, with only just over half the registered nurses in the UK working in the NHS,” she told Nursing Times

“As the largest part of the healthcare workforce, nurses must be part of the discussion about the future and I’m pleased the secretary of state has recognised he needs expert briefing on this,” she said.

Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison, said the restructure “puts the voice of nursing back into the heart of the government”.

Leading nurse researcher Professor Alison Leary, professor of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University, also welcomed the development.

“The CNO constituency is the largest professional group in healthcare,” she told Nursing Times. 

“Coming out of the DH meant it lost some of the voice needed for patient safety in particular and so this is a welcome change,” she added.

alison leary

alison leary

Alison Leary

Nursing Times understands that lobbying from the Royal College of Nursing helped to inform the government’s decision to re-establish a space for the CNO.

Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said the appointment of Dr May as Mr Hancock’s direct advisor “takes the profession in the right direction”.

“The RCN believes that removing the CNO nursing role from the department was a grave error that has left political leaders exposed and without independent advice on nursing and healthcare assistants, who are the largest workforce in the NHS,” she added.

The CNO was formerly positioned at the department but was relocated to the arms’-length body NHS England as part of a major reorganisation of the health service brought about by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

The restructure attracted criticism at the time from key nursing voices, most prominently at the RCN.

The Francis report into care failings at the former Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust also called for the position of the CNO role to be kept under review.

Before Dr May was confirmed in the role, it was announced that the next chief nurse after former incumbent Professor Jane Cummings would sit across both the two government arms’-length bodies, NHS England and NHS Improvement, in their new joint NHS executive group.

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock more recently released a statement saying that Dr May would “advise [him] directly on all aspects of nursing policy”.

In an interview with Nursing Times earlier this week, Dr May said: “I am absolutely part of the DH conversations and that’s a very big positive step forward.”

CNO and health and social care secretary

Ruth May and Matt Hancock

Ruth May and Matt Hancock meet on 29 January 2019

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