Nursing is facing a “deadly combination” of too few people being trained, experienced staff leaving the health service and a “criminal” lack of workforce planning, the head of the UK’s major nursing union has said.
Speaking at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual congress in Liverpool today, its chief executive and general secretary warned that many trust chief nurses had told the union that financial pressures meant they were unable to make the best decisions for patients.
“How can it be, five years after the Francis’ report that we’re still trying to make sure we have the right numbers of nurses?”
Janet Davies referrenced a report published by the RCN today, which revealed 40,000 nurse posts in England alone were now vacant – almost double the figure in 2013.
The college has now called for nurse staffing laws to be brought in across the UK, the first time it has done so.
She compared the current problems – in which decisions over staffing are being made based on the money available – to those that led to the care failings scandal at the former Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.
“Cutting posts to make ends meet is exactly the approach that caused the problems at Mid Staffordshire,” she told the conference.
“How can it be, that five years after Robert Francis’ report into the deaths at Mid Staffs, we’re still trying to make sure that we have the right numbers of nurses?,” she asked.
In addition, the government’s decision to remove bursaries for student nurses in England from this autumn was “dangerous”, because there was now no guarantee how many people would train, she said.
“[All] the signs [are showing] that that it’ll be mental health and learning disability nursing that suffer most”
Ms Davies referred to the “huge” reduction in course applications that were revealed in UCAS figures earlier this year, with “all the signs [showing] that it’ll be mental health and learning disability nursing that suffer most”, she said.
Meanwhile, in Scotland the number of nurse training places was being held down by the government to keep costs under control, she claimed.
In Wales, the RCN needed to make sure plans being drawn up by new workforce body Health Education Wales were based on the number of nurses required, she added.
The union leader also referred more widely to significant cuts to mental health nursing posts, and the reduced number of health visitor and school nurse jobs, following cuts to council public health budgets.
She urged local and national government to take immediate action to prevent public health “disasters” in the future. The extent of the problems meant safe staffing laws across the UK were now required, she later said.
“We believe the only way to protect our patients and our profession is to get safe staffing enshrined in law”
“We’ve now reached the point where we believe the only way to protect our patients and our profession is to get safe staffing enshrined in law,” she told delegates. She called on nurses to complete the RCN’s staffing levels survey being launched today.
Ms Davies also said the results of the union’s consultation of its members about whether they would be prepared to take strike action over the government’s 1% annual pay rise cap – which revealed 78% were in favour – sent a powerful message to the government.
However, she acknowledged that more people would need to vote if a formal ballot were to take place in the future because new laws – under the Trade Union Act, which came into force in March – require a 50% turnout to take strike action.
“So it’s important that every one of you – all of you here today – uses our ’summer of discontent’ to spread the word and get your friends, your colleagues, everyone involved. But whatever we do, our bottom line is that our patients will never suffer because of us,” she said.
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RCN Congress 2017