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'The upgrade of the CNO role is a start but a full return to Whitehall is needed'

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The new chief nursing officer for England, Dr Ruth May, has used her first interview with Nursing Times since she took on the role to emphasise the need to boost pride in nursing and midwifery.

She said it was her first priority among four “cornerstones” or goals that she wanted to achieve while CNO. Her other priorities are workforce, maximising the contribution of nurses and midwives in The NHS Long Term Plan and her #TeamCNO ethos to encourage engagement in policy among the profession.

At the same time, her appointment may already be an opportunity to celebrate a boost in status her the role of CNO in England itself and, therefore, the profession by default.

As some readers may recall, back in 2012, the role of CNO was moved from its traditional home at the Department of Health – now the Department of Health and Social Care – to be based at the brand new NHS Commissioning Board – later renamed NHS England.

Strangely, the chief medical officer was never moved in the same way, but that is another matter.

The shift was generally seen as a reduction in status, as it meant the country’s chief nurse effectively worked for the arms’-length body rather than directly for the government and there was now a barrier, however flimsy, between the CNO and the health secretary.

However, now health secretary Matt Hancock has publicly stated that Dr May will be advising him directly on “all aspects of nursing policy” and especially workforce, as she will be among a panel of experts developing the NHS workforce implementation plan expected later this year.

The pair even posed for a nice photo in Westminster. This is important stuff though, because it hopefully signals the start of getting the voice of nursing heard loud and clear in the corridors of power, rather than just echoing around NHS England.

Dr May will be busy, as she is now effectively CNO across three organisations, her old base at NHS Improvement, her new one at NHS England and the dotted line to Mr Hancock in Whitehall.

To clarify what was happening, Nursing Times asked the department to set out the new relationship. In a statement, it said: “The chief nursing officer’s new role will sit across NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care.

“This will mean the chief nursing officer plays a significant role in discussions that the secretary of state has, advising him on any key issues that impact the nursing profession,” it added.

The move was welcomed by the nursing leaders and influencers that Nursing Times spoke to. But some also pointed out that, until the CNO is back in the department itself, there is still work to do.

The new situation is certainly welcome but feels rather too dependent on the individuals involved. For it to be made secure, a more official repositioning is required.

Also, if the CNO is to be an independent advisor about nursing for the government, she or he cannot also work for NHS England and, by default, be answerable to its chief executive Simon Stevens.

So, in short, it is great to see the department keen to listen to the CNO, especially on such significant and sensitive issues as workforce. It is a good start but more needs to be done before the role of CNO can be said to have regained its rightful position.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • For me, looking up a deep shaft from the coal face, events way up in the rarefied atmosphere of Whitehall mean little. So someone I've never heard of is the new CNO. So what? I just want to be able to get my job done without too much stress, and have enough salary from it to live decently. That ain't happened in my entire career. As for pride in nursing: I actually do not like telling people I am a nurse, in case they think i am a gullible mug.

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