Ever since devolution, the national health services in Wales and Scotland have looked progressively different to that in England, and probably Northern Ireland too.
For example, they have retained student bursaries and introduced national nurse uniforms. But what they now also have is legislation designed to protect both patients and nurses from the risks of understaffing.
Last month, Scotland celebrated the passing of its bill on safe staffing, following the precedent set by Wales just over three years ago. Meanwhile, the Welsh government is looking at extending the scope of its legal protection to cover more settings.
In contrast, Northern Ireland remains stuck in a political impasse without an assembly to govern it, while the government in Westminster has always seemed unwilling to properly consider the idea of safe staffing legislation, even more so now while its head is turned by Brexit and the leadership contest of the ruling Conservative Party. However, the developments in Scotland have given new encouragement to campaigners in England, and there seems to be a will, if not a way, in Northern Ireland.
“Arguments will no doubt continue over whether legislation is the most effective way of ensuring safe staffing”
In this month’s issue of Nursing Times, our focus article examines the current state of play regarding safe staffing legislation and the factors and reasons surrounding it across the UK – and the views of chief nurses, union leaders and leading researchers.
Arguments will no doubt continue over whether legislation is the most effective way of ensuring safe staffing. In isolation, it is a blunt instrument, and requires guidance to sit under it to take into account the subtleties of patient acuity, nurse skill mix and a host of other factors.
But I strongly believe it is better to have the protection of legislation there as a safety net below the tightrope of trying to ensure safe staffing, than to cross fingers and hope for the best. The guidance that goes with it can provide the necessary flexibility to make it effective for those on the front line.
With the lessons from Mid Staffs about what can happen when staff numbers are routinely allowed to be unsafe, combined with a growing national shortage of nurses on our hands, some form of legislation on safe staffing is a must-have for the UK as a whole. To argue against is surely folly.