There has been a slight drop in the number of nurse vacancies in the NHS, latest figures show, but health chiefs warned filling gaps remained a big challenge.
Whole time equivalent nursing vacancies reduced from 41,337 in the first quarter of 2018/19 to 40,877 in the second quarter. The vacancy rate fell marginally from 11.7% to 11.6%.
“NHS staff are looking expectantly to the long-term plan to show that help is on the way”
Dame Donna Kinnair
However, the situation is still worse than a year ago. In quarter two of 2017/18, there were 39,154 empty nurse posts, equating to a vacancy rate of 11.2%.
In its report (see PDF attached below), NHS Improvement said the decrease from quarter one to quarter two this financial year was a result of “expected substantive recruitment aligned with new graduate outturn during the quarter”.
However, it warned that vacancies remained a particular challenge for the nursing workforce, adding: “every unfilled shift poses an operational challenge on the front line”.
Approximately 80% of the nursing gaps were filled by a combination of bank (64%) and agency staff (36%), found the report.
Overall staff vacancies across the NHS fell to 102,821 at the end of September this year, from 107,463 at the end of June and from 104,237 in quarter two of 2017/18.
Commenting on the latest figures, Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Despite everything we know about the consequences for patients and the abundance of research on safe care, the number of unfilled nurse jobs is rising year on year, not falling.”
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Source: Kate Stanworth
She added that the forthcoming NHS 10-year plan, due be published this month, was an opportunity to “make a break with this situation”.
“NHS staff are looking expectantly to the long-term plan to show that help is on the way,” Dame Donna said.
“Well-intentioned announcements from government without staff to deliver the care won’t wash anymore and it’s irresponsible, wishful thinking to wait until next year for the spending review to tackle this,” she added.
Overall spending on temporary staff to fill gaps was up by 10% compared to the same period in 2017/18.
So far this year, the NHS has overspent on bank staff by £260m and on agency staff by £93m, the report found.
“Frontline staff and managers deserve tremendous praise for their heroism”
NHS Improvement noted that the rise was down to increasing pressures around demand, high levels of vacancies and issues around sickness absence and staff turnover.
However, it highlighted that agency costs had “steadily decreased” since 2015 when spending caps were introduced, with providers encouraged to prioritise bank workers to fill gaps instead.
Increased demands on the NHS between July and September 2018 saw nearly 1,000 more emergency patients a day admitted to hospital, in comparison to the same period last year.
A total of 6.18 million people visited A&E during quarter two this year — 252,360 (4.3%) more than the same period last year.
NHS staff treated 5.52 million of those patients within the four-hour target, up from 5.34 million in the previous quarter.
The report noted that staff were also able to discharge more patients from their hospitals sooner, freeing up the equivalent of 2,470 beds in time for winter.
However, waiting times for planned treatments increased and the provider sector’s deficit is forecast to be £558m by the end of March.
“The service simply does not have the staff to do the job”
Ian Dalton, chief executive of NHS Improvement, said: “The NHS is working flat out to ensure record numbers of patients get the care they need. Frontline staff and managers deserve tremendous praise for their heroism.
“But this achievement continues to come at a cost with performance targets not being met nationally and hospitals being unable to balance their books to cover the increased demand on their services,” he added.
He said that the long-term plan was an “opportunity to fundamentally redesign how the NHS works”.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, warned that the winter would be a “severe test” for the NHS with patients at increased risk of catching flu, norovirus and colds.
“The challenge is all the greater with more than 100,000 vacancies across the NHS in England,” he added. “The service simply does not have the staff to do the job.”
Source: Neil O’Connor
Mr Dickson said there needed to be new types of services developed to support people in their own homes and in the community to “relieve the intolerable pressure in hospitals”.