The NHS in England is unable to fill round 3,000 empty nurse posts despite the use of bank and agency staff, according to a report by a group of MPs, which has also raised concerns about the lack of robust national data on the shortage.
Although temporary staff are being used on shifts to cover 33,000 empty posts, a further 3,000 are going unfilled, according to estimates supplied by Health Education England (HEE) to the Commons’ health select committee as part of an inquiry into issues affecting the nursing workforce.
“Permanent posts must not be deliberately left vacant or recruitment delayed to ease financial pressures”
Health select committee
A major report on the committee’s conclusions, published today, said that, while temporary staff offered flexibility, the priority “must be to recruit and retain permanent staff” to provide “the best standards of care and continuity”.
“Permanent posts must not be deliberately left vacant or recruitment delayed to ease financial pressures,” added the report, which is titled The nursing workforce and was compiled with the help of Nursing Times.
The MPs noted the number of nurse vacancies in the NHS had gone up in recent years, partly due to the 2013 inquiry into the care scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust – the so-called Francis effect.
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However, the committee highlighted that there were not enough nurses to fill the substantive posts and that bank and agency workers were being used to fill some of the vacancies.
As was recently stated in a draft workforce plan published by HEE, the committee noted that the field of nursing with the highest vacancy rate is learning disabilities – at 16.3% – followed by mental health nursing (14.3%).
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Children’s nursing has 10.9% of its posts vacant and adult nursing has 10.1% empty, while the community nursing vacancy rate is estimated by HEE to be 9.5%. But the influential group of MPs noted there was still not a nationally agreed figure of the exact size of the nursing shortage.
Among the 17 recommendations made in the report, the committee called for the government and its arm’s-length workforce planning body, HEE, to publish “robust, timely and publicly available” data at a national, regional and trust level on the scale of the nursing shortage.
It said the dataset should also include figures on how many nurses have taken up advanced practitioner roles.
In addition, the MPs warned there were concerns that projections of the future number of nurses required may be at risk of being based on affordability, instead of demand and demographics.
The group highlighted that, although HEE’s recently published draft workforce plan included some high-level projections of the number of staff required, “the methodology behind these projections is not clear”.
Problems with workforce data identified by the National Audit Office in 2016 had still not been rectified, said the committee. While HEE’s draft strategy made commitments to improving the situation, it was “disappointing” it had taken the body two years to begin to act on the NAO recommendation, said the MPs.
Their report, which covers a range of issues affecting the nursing workforce was compiled with the help of the Nursing Times. The MPs held two focus groups where they met with frontline nurses from across the country, from a wide range of specialities and at different stages of their careers.
The chair of the committee, Sarah Wollaston, visited our Team Leaders’ Conference in Birmingham in November and found out what life was like for sisters and other managers who are charged with trying to fill their rosters.
She and her team also visited a group of nurses in London, with representatives present from hospitals and the community working in a range of specialties, including theatre and mental health. The evidence heard from nurses at these events is recorded in the report’s two annexes:
- Note of discussions with nurses held by the chair on 9 November 2017
- Note of committee visit to Royal London Hospital, 23 November 2017
Read more about the report’s findings and recommendations in our news coverage and analysis:
- HSC: CPD cuts must be reversed to stop nurses from leaving jobs
- HSC: Language testing must be ‘closely monitored’ by NHS England
- HSC: CNO should lead drive to ensure safe nurse working conditions
- HSC: Nursing organisations welcome major report on workforce
- ‘The nursing workforce must be expanded - at scale and pace’