Nursing leaders have expressed shock and dismay at “foolhardy” plans to scrap the nursing and midwifery advisory unit at the Department of Health.
The proposal to axe the nursing, midwifery and allied health professions unit will see the loss of seven staff including the unit’s head David Foster.
“It sends a very ‘anti’ message to the profession overall”
Also affected are the DH’s professional adviser on mental health, learning disability and dementia care Ben Thomas, nursing and midwifery adviser Jean Christensen and AHPs adviser Alison Raw. In addition, three support staff have been formally told their jobs are at risk of redundancy.
Leading nursing and NHS organisations have strongly criticised the move, which is part of a major cost-cutting drive with about 700 posts set to go in an effort to reduce running costs by a third over the next five years.
Unison’s head of nursing Gail Adams said she was “appalled” and urged the DH to rethink its position.
“I am genuinely surprised they have taken this decision because in effect it says they are only prepared to listen to doctors because the only professional voice that will remain in the DH will be the chief medical officer,” she said. “It clearly shows the department is not interested in the voice of nursing.”
She told Nursing Times that getting rid of the unit had “significant risks” and would mean ministers would lose a “critical friend” to help formulate practical policies based on what was best for patients and “clear, objective and impartial advice”.
While the DH has meetings with the chief nursing officer Jane Cummings and other senior nurses on a regular basis, Ms Adams feared these conversations could be influenced by the competing priorities of different arms-length bodies, such as NHS England.
“This is not a comment about any of the individuals – this is about the process,” she said. “I think the department is foolhardy not to retain its own nursing directorate.
“It could affect the type of advice they receive in the future and it sends completely the wrong message about nursing,” she said.
She added: “It sends a very ‘anti’ message to the profession overall – you are the biggest part of our workforce but you have no voice in our directorate.”
Ms Adams also criticised the way the plan had been formulated and lack of proper consultation.
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“The fact this has all been done very covertly, firmly within department represents a lack of openness and transparency from a department which tries to portray itself as a champion of openness,” she said.
The loss of the unit comes three years after Sir Robert Francis criticised the lack of a strong nursing voice in the NHS and called for this to be strengthened.
The Royal College of Nursing described the planned cuts – part of the “DH 2020” programme – as “extremely worrying”.
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RCN general secretary Janet Davies said it was vital that experienced and knowledgeable nursing professionals were involved in creating health policy “right at the heart of government”.
“The government is already failing to listen to stakeholders and mishandling its plans for student funding,” she added. “Without senior nurse leadership at the heart of government formulating and interrogating plans, this looks set to continue, to the detriment of all.
“Unless nursing advice and leadership is put back at the heart of government and given the prominence and respect it deserves, then the profession will be in the permanent position of trying to shape and alter policy from the outside which is not only bad for nursing, but also for patients,” she said.
Moves were underway to potentially include an emergency resolution on the issue at next week’s RCN congress in Glasgow.
The move has also been condemned by the New NHS Alliance, a network organisation that supports primary care providers and clinicians.
“Since the Francis Inquiry report was published, we have experienced concerning issues around workforce planning, integration and new models of care,” said the body’s co-chair Heather Henry.
“The need for senior nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals leadership has never been more acute,” said Ms Henry, who has a nursing background.
“At last we have the GP Forward View and our new nursing strategy Leading Change, Adding Value,” she said. “Policy advice at the highest level will be needed to ensure both are a success.”
The body urged nurses and others to write to their MPs to ask for the decision to be reversed.
The DH has said it is “absolutely committed to ensuring the voice of nursing is heard loud and clear in all of our policy making”.
“Ministers meet the chief nursing officer and other nursing experts on a regular basis,” said a spokeswoman.
“All of the changes we are making through our DH 2020 programme are being done transparently and following extensive engagement with our staff.”