Nurse staffing is the most crucial part of the profession’s challenge right now, and was high on the agenda at last week’s Deputies’ Congress, organised by Nursing Times.
The events followed a week when the chief nursing officer for England took over the job of fixing the safe staffing problem, amid controversial suggestions that the guidance on safe staffing being produced by National Institute for Health and Care Excellence “might” be stopped, as we reported earlier this month (see page 2).
The audience of deputy nurse directors asked NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and CNO Jane Cummings how they intend to manage the issue. Both are right to say the debate has moved on from being strictly about numbers - and nurses themselves can articulate the skills needed to care for patients and recognise the contribution of different professional disciplines.
But the nursing workforce is in crisis. There aren’t enough nurses to care safely for patients in most hospitals, and community staff are also overworked. Nursing Times surveys have demonstrated this, as have the unions.
At our congress, Mr Stevens reiterated his need for employers to create flexible working patterns to attract agency nurses to permanent posts. It’s a laudable aim. But persuading staff to leave flexible agency contracts to work for an organisation that won’t even contemplate 1% pay rises until a gun is held to its head isn’t going to be easy for employers. Nor is it easy for trusts to stop costly overseas recruitment drives. We didn’t train enough nurses so we don’t have enough to meet demand.
The CNO has a tough job to fix staffing. We are told there is no more money. But perhaps there should be. Agency staff might be expensive, but aren’t there are other NHS salary and consultancy costs that could be rich hunting grounds for efficiency savings? Why is nursing always in the firing line?
Ms Cummings is right to recognise that Health Education England must work with trusts to commission the right number of training places based on demand, and not affordability. And her vision to create a career progression for healthcare assistants will also support good-quality, safe care.
But what we really need is a solution now rather than a vision of the future. The profession is banking on the CNO to provide both.
Jenni Middleton, editor
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