Hunt needs to understand that nurses join the profession to nurse, not because they failed to become doctors
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been remarkably silent on nursing issues over the past few months, despite the profession facing a raft of major – and controversial – changes. He appears to have tinkered with the profession behind the scenes without involving its leaders or even having the decency to be honest and transparent.
He certainly made up for his silence on nursing at last week’s NHS Providers conference in Birmingham.
Mr Hunt talked about encouraging nurses (and doctors) into leadership roles and creating a route to enable nurses to go into advanced practice (“and beyond”). He also announced his plan to fix the nursing workforce shortage with the nurse apprenticeship scheme and said he wanted the Nursing and Midwifery Council to regulate the new nursing associate role.
This plethora of policies at least shows that he realises nursing is important to get right – something I’ve had my doubts about at times – but there are still indications that he doesn’t quite understand the scale of the problem.
With nearly 24,000 nurse vacancies across the UK, it doesn’t quite cut it to announce schemes that will bring in a couple of thousand more nursing staff over the next few years. Particularly if you’re expecting existing nurses to take on new leadership roles and leave their current duties undone.
And his reference to nurses going into “advanced practice and beyond” could indicate that he wants nurses to move “up” to become doctors.
Mr Hunt needs to think carefully about this – regardless of whether he meant that or simply didn’t communicate clearly what he meant by “and beyond”. He needs to understand that nurses join the profession to nurse, not because they failed to become doctors. And they aren’t “below” doctors – they are an entirely different profession, accountable for their own practice. In any case, we have a shortage and can’t afford to lose experienced nurses to other professions.
Of course, Mr Hunt is attempting to solve the problem on the cheap by devaluing everything registered nurses do. The NHS is in debt and it seems his idea is to get the staff to bail it out.
Underinvesting has cost us dear – there aren’t enough registered nurses because of poor workforce planning, and deteriorating pay and conditions mean we are rapidly losing nurses. Some of the plans announced last week will help and are to be welcomed, albeit cautiously. But be careful, Mr Hunt, the solution to the workforce crisis isn’t just to pay less and expect more.