Nursing unions have strongly criticised nurse workforce shortages in the wake of yesterday’s revelations on staff vacancy levels in the health service.
The issue of nurse shortages was highlighted along with similar problems facing doctors, as part of a health service themed day across national and regional BBC networks.
“Time and again, the NHS finds that failing to train enough staff is its Achilles heel”
Data, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, showed that on 1 December 2015, the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had more than 23,443 nursing vacancies – equivalent to 9% of the workforce.
Based on information supplied by 106 trusts and health boards, it revealed that from 2013-15, nursing vacancies increased by 50% and doctors by about 60%.
It also found that, in England and Wales, there were 1,265 vacancies for registered nurses in accident and emergency departments – about 11% of the total.
In addition, the BBC investigation showed nearly 70% of trusts were actively recruiting from abroad due to staff shortages.
Janet Davies, the Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive and general secretary, said the widening gap between demand and supply of nurses was “worrying”.
She said: “Nursing posts are often the first target when savings need to be made, leading the NHS to find itself dangerously short and having to spend more on agency staff and recruitment from other countries.”
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She added: “Time and again, the NHS finds that failing to train enough staff is its Achilles heel. The consequences are felt by nurses working under relentless pressure.
“Sadly, the consequences are also felt by patients who face delays and unmet needs, and by other countries who can ill afford to export their trained staff,” said Ms Davies.
Meanwhile, Unison head of health Christina McAnea highlighted the problem of trying to monitor ongoing vacancy levels in the NHS.
“As vacancies are no longer centrally collected, held or published, it’s difficult to build up a national picture of the workforce gaps across the country,” she said.
“It’s difficult to build up a national picture of the workforce gaps across the country”
Ms McAnea also described cutting nursing jobs to save money as a “false economy”, because it often resulted in spending more on agency staff to ensure patient safety was not compromised.
“We are currently witnessing the largest sustained fall in NHS spending since the 1950s so the overspending on agency staff is only going to aggravate an already challenging situation,” she warned.
In addition, she argued that government plans to replace student nurse bursaries with a loans system would “only make things worse” by making the profession less attractive to potential course applicants.
In response to the BBC figures on vacancies, both the Department of Health and the Welsh Government said there had been an overall increase in the number of staff, including nurses, employed by the NHS in recent years.