I know many of you will spend Christmas staffing wards, working in the community or general practice, in mental health units, schools or even posted overseas.
And as the cold weather starts to bite, it is nursing staff who will bear the brunt of the workforce shortages crippling our health and social care services.
So I wanted to update you on the work Royal College of Nursing members, staff, and I personally have been doing to put this right. In a few short weeks, the RCN’s Fund Our Future campaign has succeeded in pushing student funding to the forefront of the policy agenda.
Led by the student committee, student nurses around the country have shown just how effective the RCN can be when we speak with one voice.
So far, nearly 2,000 students have emailed their MPs, and on Twitter alone the campaign has reached nearly three and a half million people – quite an achievement in just over a month.
“Despite these positive noises, this fight is far from won”
These efforts have had an impact – make no mistake that decision-makers both in the Department of Health and NHS England are taking notice. At the Westminster Hall debate at the end of last month, health minister Stephen Hammond committed to work with the RCN to improve student funding, and we are exploring what this will look like in practice.
But despite these positive noises, this fight is far from won. More recent communications from the Department of Health have been light on detail and we are making a specific ask – we want specific answers.
The RCN has presented costed proposals to the government, such as a maintenance grant for all nursing students and practical support for tuition fees – including bringing back the bursary or introducing forgivable loans. In this second option, loans would be paid back by the government in return for years of nursing service.
These proposals will cost at least £1bn a year, a figure similar to the amount the government is projected to lose through writing off student nurse debt.
Over the last two weeks I have been in talks both with ministers and NHS England, putting the case on behalf of members through a series of meetings and telephone calls. It’s an argument many of you will know only too well.
Since the living support bursary for nursing students was scrapped in 2016, applications to study nursing have fallen 33%, while the number of students accepted onto courses has dropped by 8%, despite government promises that the policy would improve supply.
This is against a backdrop of 42,000 nurse vacancies in England, projected to rise as high as 48,000 by 2023 if no action is taken. I don’t need to tell you that staff vacancies have become a serious patient safety concern.
It’s clear that if we are to increase the number of nurses, we must first increase the number of nursing students. This is a straightforward argument, but how we do this – and where the money comes from – are still very much in play.
With claims being made from all quarters on the cash promised on the 70th anniversary of the NHS, these negotiations are not easy. But it is my job to turn your efforts into lasting change.
“People know there are not enough nurses to provide the care they want for themselves and their loved ones”
What we do know is the public is behind us. As with any campaign that seeks to influence MPs, making it clear that failure to act could be reflected in the ballot box is a good way to focus attention. YouGov polling carried out on behalf of the college found more than half the public back an increase in funding support for student nurses.
Our polling also found that more than 70% of the public say there are not enough nurses to keep NHS patients safe. People know there are not enough nurses to provide the care they want for themselves and their loved ones.
We are presenting decision-makers with a solution. This Christmas, it’s time the government and NHS England gave people the present they really need – an adequately staffed health and social care system, with decision-makers held accountable in law for providing enough staff to keep patients safe.
By next Christmas, we want the government and NHS to have committed to ending these shortages.
Donna Kinnair is acting chief executive and general secretary, Royal College of Nursing