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NHS learning disability nursing workforce hits record low

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The number of learning disability nurses in the NHS has hit a record low, plummeting by more than 40% in less than a decade, new figures reveal.

The latest statistics show 3,192 learning disability nurses were working in hospital and community health services in England in June – the lowest since the NHS Digital records began in September 2009 when 5,553 were employed.

“The whole thing is being badly managed in my view and with a palpable lack of leadership”

Bob Gates

Over the same period, there was a 23% drop in school nurses and 12% fall in mental health nurses. The number of health visitors in the NHS has fallen to 7,910 – the lowest since October 2012.

The data shows the midwife workforce has fallen steadily since November 2017, with 21,517 employed in June 2018. However, this represents a 13% rise since September 2009.

Bob Gates, a professor of learning disabilities in London, said he had warned the government of a learning disability nursing crisis several years ago but “nothing constructive” was done to address it. 

Bob Gates

Bob Gates

Bob Gates

Professor Gates said: “The whole thing is being badly managed in my view and with a palpable lack of leadership, vision or direction.

He added: “It is a sad reflection on the NHS that they are not able to provide the senior leadership necessary to resolve this situation, and also a poor reflection of the value placed on one of the most marginalized groups in our society – especially when we know so much about the health inequity and inequality experienced in this population.”

There is a belief among some critics that the government’s removal of bursaries for nursing students has hit the fields mental health and learning disability the hardest.

In August, the Royal College of Nursing warned that the learning disability nurse crisis risked a return to the Victorian era, with more patients being sent away from their loved ones to institutions for care. 

Reacting to the drop in mental health nurses, Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Mental Health Network, part of the NHS Confederation, said: “Better mental health care can only be delivered with the right number of staff with the right skills.

Sean Duggan

Sean Duggan

Sean Duggan

“We need to enable mental health providers to attract and retain the right colleagues to help put the nation’s mental health on the right track for the long haul.”

Mr Duggan called for greater utilisation of people with lived experience of mental health problems, digital tools and the voluntary and charitable sectors.

He said psychology graduates should also be “welcomed into our ranks with suitable roles identified”.

Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people’s nursing at the RCN, said the decline in school nurses was “leaving children without the care they need”, and called for greater investment in the profession.

She added: “Children’s health services are the frontline defence against childhood obesity and poor child mental health. 

Royal College of Nursing

‘Urgent’ training need in care for transgender patients

Fiona Smith

“School nurses provide vital support to young people and intervene before problems escalate,” she said. “But nurses report they are understaffed, unable to take breaks and feel the care they give is compromised.

“As public health funding continues to dwindle, the government risks turning back the clock on children’s health – it must provide school nurses with the investment they need,” said Ms Smith.

Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said the organisation had warned about the decline in health visitors for two years. 

She added: “The effects on a generation of children’s health and wellbeing will sadly be profound. It will get much worse without prompt action by the government, as health visitors are now frightened by the inevitable safety issues that have arisen and are choosing to leave their posts rather than become ill.”

NHS England has been approached for a comment. 


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