Over 35,000 nurse posts in the health service in England are currently vacant, according to data published for the first time by NHS Improvement as part of its latest quarterly update.
The regulator’s latest report, published today, reveals how the health service had performed in England across a range of measures during the third quarter of 2017-18, from October to December.
“This release puts official figures on nurse shortages in the public domain for the first time”
Included in the regulator’s report for the first time was workforce data from NHS providers, which showed they employ 1.1 million whole time equivalent (WTE) staff but have 100,000 vacancies.
Overall, vacancies have reduced slightly over the last quarter, but the high vacancy rates continue to have an “impact on performance”, warned NHS Improvement in its report.
The report noted that NHS trusts employed over 313,000 WTE registered nursing staff. But it highlighted that there were also over 35,000 WTE vacancies, of which approximately 90-95% were currently being filled by a combination of bank (65%) and agency staff (35%).
“I would like to say my heartfelt thanks to NHS staff for their continued hard work”
In comparison, during the same period, NHS trusts employed over 112,000 WTE medical staff. In addition to this substantive workforce, there are over 9,500 WTE vacancies.
The data shows the nursing vacancy rate was slightly less for the last three months of 2017 than earlier in the year.
During April to June, there were 38,180 registered nurse vacancies – equivalent to 10.9% of WTE posts being empty. The situation was even worse during July to September, with 39,004 vacancies – representing around 11.2%.
The report stated that the inclusion of workforce data in its quarterly update for the first time “gives us the clearest indication so far of the scale of the workforce challenge facing providers”.
“In addition to the 1.1 million whole time equivalent staff employed by providers, there are around 100,000 vacancies,” it noted, regarding the overall vacancy level across all types of staff.
“Although this has reduced slightly in the last quarter, these vacancies will continue to have an impact on provider performance,” it said.
“These vacancies will continue to have an impact on provider performance”
NHS Improvement report
In contrast, the report highlighted continued success on bringing agency spending down, in line with government policy, but indicated that trusts were using more bank staff to compensate.
During the third quarter of the 2017-18 financial year, the sector spent £108m less than planned and £441m less than the comparable period last year, which the report said was a “dramatic fall of 20%”.
It added that, despite ongoing pressures, this downward trend was expected to continue into the current quarter, with trusts forecasting that expenditure would underspend by £137m for the year.
But the use of bank staff was £664m above plan in the third quarter, which the report said reflected the “need to manage workload in the face of increased demand, high vacancy levels, sickness/absence and staff turnover”.
Ian Dalton, chief executive of NHS Improvement, said: “I would like to say my heartfelt thanks to NHS staff for their continued hard work and recognise that there is more hard work ahead.”
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, added: “NHS staff in England are doing a heroic job, but these figures reflect the intolerable pressure on a system which currently has a staggering 100,000 vacancies to fill.”
Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which is part of the confederation, said the performance figures showed how the health service had been “pushed to the limit” and was “working at full stretch with around 100,000 vacancies and a real risk of staff burnout”.
“Today’s consolidated vacancy figures shine a spotlight on the size of workforce shortage NHS trusts are having to cope with,” she said. Trust leaders tell us that having one in eleven posts vacant makes it much more difficult to provide high quality care.
“It also means the continued progress trusts are making in reducing the amount of money they are spending on agency staff looks even more impressive,” said Ms Cordery.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This release puts official figures on nurse shortages in the public domain for the first time.
“All the evidence shows that standards of patient care rise and fall as nurse numbers do,” she said. “That was the lesson from Mid Staffordshire and we cannot afford to forget it.”
Ms Davies called for the government to introduce safe staffing legislations, as has been done already in Wales and is being proposed in Scotland.
She also repeated calls for better pay, a national recruitment campaign and the reversal of recently unveiled plans to scrap bursaries for those studying nursing who already have degrees in other subjects.
“Immediate action to reverse this situation must begin with ministers dropping plans to remove bursaries from post-graduate nursing students and instead introducing new grants and an over-due national campaign to boost student numbers,” she said.
She added: “Current staff must be recognised for their hard work and experience with a meaningful pay rise this year. But only by setting safe and effective staffing levels in legislation, in every part of the UK, can standards of patient care rise significantly too.”
Registered nursing vacancies by region
- London: 9,478 (14.4%)
- Midlands and East: 10,309 (10.5%)
- North: 7,623 (7.1%)
- South: 8,425 (10.8%)
- Total: 35,835 (10.3%)
Registered nursing vacancies by sector
- Acute: 26,276 (10.3%)
- Ambulance: 57 (14.3%)
- Community: 1,475 (8.7%)
- Mental Health: 7,152 (11.1%)
- Specialist: 875 (7%)
- Total: 35,835 (10.3%)