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Hunt’s mental health workforce plans seem an unaffordable pipe dream

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The radio was awash with mental health nurses, former nurses and experts commenting on the health service on Monday, following Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that he’s going to find 21,000 more health professionals for the sector, as part of an “ambitious” workforce plan. 

Ambitious is his word, not mine.

I was driving back from visiting a healthcare provider and happened to catch the Jeremy Vine programme on Radio 2, in which the subject was being debated.

A former mental health nurse was explaining why he had left the profession – burnt out and frustrated by bureaucracy, he had had to retire in his early 50s. Another caller revealed how she would have loved to train to become a mental health nurse now but without the support of the bursary, it would remain an unaffordable pipe dream for her.

“When even he is worrying that it can’t be done, you know we are in trouble.”

When even the health secretary concedes that his plans are “ambitious”, you know that is code for “I don’t really think this is possible but I have to say something positive about this enormous gap in the workforce”. When even he is worrying that it can’t be done, you know we are in trouble.

It seems ridiculous that this government can freeze pay rises, remove the bursary, and ignore the sudden drop in overseas nurses wanting to come here, while still thinking they can swell the ranks of those who will join the profession.

I heard one response from a lecturer who said those applying to do a mental health nursing degree at her university had fallen dramatically, and, as predicted, there were fewer applications from mature students with life experience – something the unions warned would happen following the bursary removal.

So how exactly is Mr Hunt going to attract people to go into mental health nursing and keep them there? Because warm words and a pledge about parity of esteem are not going to cut it.

Mental health nurses want to know they are being valued, that they will spend their time with their service users and not on paperwork, and that their services will be protected properly when the time comes to make brutal cuts.

“Warm words and a pledge about parity of esteem are not going to cut it.”

Baroness Mary Watkins, a nurse in the House of Lords, joined the callers on the Radio 2 show, and stated the positive line – that mental health nursing was and is an excellent profession to go into and, once trained, you will always have a job for life.

I think she’s right on this last point, but because it’s a job with such pressure and yet so lowly paid that no one else would ever fight you for it.

Surely, if we want to give our service users the best mental health care there should be market forces at work to ensure that only the very best nurses find the very best jobs? I know of placement providers – not just in mental health but in acute hospital settings too – saying that from the very outset they will guarantee every student on placement a job.

That is, of course, lovely and reassuring for the student – good qualified nurses should all get jobs after working so hard for three years to attain their degrees. But what if the student is no good? Is there pressure on mentors not to fail their students so the organisation has a ready pipeline of nurses, regardless of their quality?

“Once again it seems that the need to fill gaps is eclipsing the need to ensure we have the right candidates.”

I wonder whether in this race to the right numbers we will miss out on something important – ensuring quality and that we are recruiting the right people to care for patients.

Once again it seems that the need to fill gaps is eclipsing the need to ensure we have the right candidates. If you want an extra 21,000 health professionals, you need to pay them well, treat them well and ensure they do not want to take their skills anywhere else.

Mr Hunt should be working out how to do that if he wants to secure mental health nurses, otherwise this plan is just an unaffordable pipe dream.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Well said. For Mr Hunt to use the health service and nurse recruitment as political sound bites and for political gain is preposterous. That he thinks he can fill that amount of posts is nothing short of ludicrous. Has he see LA LA Land? Because he seems to be living in it.

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