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Veteran NHS boss warns of unsafe staffing levels across the health service

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A long-standing and respected trust chief executive has warned that patients could die due to unsafe staffing levels unless action is taken on a national scale across the health service.

Andrew Foster, chief executive of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust, said the extent of short staffing in the NHS was reminiscent of the challenges faced after the mid 1990s.

“What I am seeing at the moment is staff working harder and long over the hours they are paid for. I see staff leaving who have had enough,” he told Health Service Journal.

Mr Foster, also a former director general of workforce at the Department of Health, said a new national workforce strategy and investment was now essential to maintain safe services.

His warning came ahead of the health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement yesterday of plans for a national workforce strategy at the NHS Providers annual conference.

Mr Foster said the workforce situation currently facing trusts was a real concern and echoed what happened 20 years ago.

Then, after many years of low investment and staffing cuts, the government announced substantial funding for workforce expansion as part of a major strategy – titled the NHS Plan – including an extra 20,000 nurses.

Mr Foster said the result was a major focus on expanding the workforce that also looked at a range of issues such as retirement, international recruitment, and pay and contract reform.

“We have been where we are now and we did things that worked. Obviously, it needs resource to be done, but the point is that it can be done,” he told Health Service Journal.

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust

Veteran NHS boss warns of unsafe staffing levels across NHS

Andrew Foster

Mr Foster said that after the year 2000 the NHS increased its workforce by hundreds of thousands, though at a cost of £12bn.

He said: “If we did even half of that and increased the workforce by 15% that would be well on the way to creating a safe and sustainable healthcare system.

“The alternative is not doing that and then we will be lurching from crisis to crisis and people will be dying due to a lack of safe staffing levels,” he warned.

“There needs to be one overall workforce strategy, which includes the hard things like numbers of staff, but also the softer side of things like how we, as employers, act,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr Hunt announced plans for a new over-arching national workforce strategy for the NHS, to be developed by Health Education England and put in place next year.

He told conference delegates that it would be a “robust, co-ordinated workforce plan”, suggesting it would take into account a range of factors as well as education, such as Brexit and staff retention.

The announcement follows increasing pressure for the government to act on NHS workforce issues, with a raft of reports issuing warnings on staffing and confirming another fall in nurse numbers.

Latest figures revealed by the Nursing and Midwifery Council on 2 November showed nurses and midwives were continuing to leave the profession at a greater rate than they are joining.

The number of nurses and midwives on the register was 691,416 in September 2016, but fell to 689,738 this September – representing a loss of 1,678 registrants in the space of a year.

In addition, a report published on Monday by NHS Providers warned that workforce problems were the most significant threat to delivering high quality care in the health service. It stated that workforce concerns were the most pressing challenge for the majority of trust chief executives and chairs.

Meanwhile, last week, a report from think-tank the Health Foundation warned of a “growing gap” between government plans to increase the size of the NHS workforce in England and the reality of falling numbers of nurses and doctors.

It echoed similar findings from fellow think-tank the King’s Fund that described a “worrying” trend since April of falling numbers of nurses in the NHS – a drop of around 700 in the space of a year.

The influential Commons health select committee also revealed in September that it was to hold a wide-ranging inquiry into the nursing workforce in England.

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