Political parties have failed to put forward plausible solutions to the NHS’s workforce crisis in their election campaigning and have come up with proposals that have an “air of unreality”, according to the head of an organisation representing trusts.
The chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents acute, ambulance, community and mental health services, has claimed that the extra NHS staff promised by parties could not be afforded within their planned budgets.
“[We can’t]…close the current gap between rapidly rising demand and insufficient funding growth by asking the frontline NHS to do the impossible”
Chris Hopson also said NHS managers would struggle to fill the additional posts being promised due to insufficient numbers of recruits available.
Staffing gaps were increasing due to seven years of public sector pay restraint, uncertainty caused by the UK leaving the European Union, and growing pressures on workers making their jobs looks unattractive to recruits, he said in an online post.
“The general election campaign has offered few realistic answers to these issues,” he added.
He also warned that all three major parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – had failed to address the increasing gap between the funding available for the NHS and the rising demand for services.
“The general election campaign has offered few realistic answers to these [staffing] issues”
Politicians had become nervous of having long-term debates about the NHS that would involve “hard truths” for the public, he claimed.
“It feels like the NHS and social care are in danger of becoming the third rail of British politics – the big looming problems that no one will grasp for fear of instant electrocution,” he said.
“But we need someone to lead this much-needed national debate on the long-term future of the NHS,” he said. “And if the politicians won’t or can’t, those of us who want the key principles of the NHS to survive will have to step into their place.
“What we can’t do is pretend, for another five years, that we can close the current gap between rapidly rising demand and insufficient funding growth by asking the frontline NHS to do the impossible and then castigate them when they inevitably fall short,” added Mr Hopson.
Early on in the campaigning period, the NHS Providers chief warned that workforce planning in the NHS was “breaking down” and that trusts were now saying that hiring and keeping the right number of staff was their biggest challenge.
Since then, political parties have released manifestos with their plans for the NHS.
Labour promised to scrap the 1% cap on annual pay rises, reinstate the student nurse bursary and enshrine safe staffing in law, all funded through a reversal of the government’s reductions in corporation tax.
It also said it would boost health visitor and school nurse numbers and reverse the “damage” caused by government funding cuts and a big drop in the number of mental health nurses.
The Conservatives pledged to ensure the NHS and social care services got the nurses, midwives and other healthcare staff required, including 10,000 more mental health professionals by 2020. But no additional details were provided.
The party also said it was not possible to continue to rely on “bringing in clinical staff instead of training sufficient numbers ourselves”, referring to overseas staff.
The Liberal Democrats said they would lift the public sector pay rise freeze for NHS workers and raise salaries in line with inflation, and also reinstate nurse bursaries.
Responding to Mr Hopson’s comments, a Labour spokeswoman said the party had pledged to invest in the health and care workforce and provide a long-term plan.
”A Labour government will step in with a long-term workforce plan for our health service that gives staff the support they need to do the best for their patients,” she said.
She reiterated the party’s commitments to remove the government’s 1% pay rise cap, reintroduce bursaries and bring in laws on safe staffing in the NHS.
”Labour are pledging an extra £37bn over the course of the next parliament, including £10bn of capital funding to make sure that NHS buildings and IT systems are fit for the modern day and to improve A&E performances,” she added.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said the party’s commitments to tackle funding and workforce issues in the NHS and social care were “front and centre of our manifesto”.
He reiterated plans to increase income tax by1p in every pound to raise additional ring-fenced funding for health and care services.
In addition, the Liberal Democrats would reinstate student bursaries and ”give our NHS staff the pay-rise they deserve,” said the spokesman.