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Nurse redeployment is a symptom of staffing shortages – could new laws be the cure?

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What is it that is happening across half of the UK that the Royal College of Nursing thinks could be a major catalyst in helping to tackle nurse shortages in the other half?

To help you find the answer, it is something that is already happening in Wales, and Scotland is on its way to securing it – placing Northern Ireland and England under pressure to follow suit.

“All types of services are struggling with staffing”

That’s right, it is safe nurse staffing legislation. Come the autumn, a major campaign will be launched to try to ensure all parts of the UK have it – or extend it to more services, if it’s already in place.

The campaign will be led by the RCN, whose chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies announced the organisation’s plan in Belfast last Sunday during its annual congress.

It came at an apt point during the day’s events at the conference, with nurses having spent the morning debating recruitment and retention issues.

These topics are not unfamiliar territory for nurses. As was mentioned during the debate, all types of services are struggling with staffing, though nurses in particular specialties – including learning disability, mental health and district nursing – have seen numbers fall the furthest since 2010.

Concerns about patients were raised by delegates, but also some concerning nurses’ own wellbeing as they struggle to ensure care is safe while juggling high workloads.

The next item on the congress agenda looked at the redeployment of staff to services outside of their area of expertise. RCN members ended up debating whether they should refuse to be moved.

Some felt they should always offer to switch areas to fill staffing gaps, on the basis they could provide basic nursing care, such as observations, no matter what. Others stressed the potential risk to patients – and their own PIN – was too great.

But, as one nurse implied during the debate, the discussion was a distraction from the real issue.

“What is at the heart of these problems? Staffing levels,” she said. “We can’t just say ‘we’re a bit short here, but it’s fine – we’ll just take from another area.’ No – look at why we are short in that area. Because we don’t have a safe staffing level.”

“Whatever the final approach, the campaign is sorely needed”

This is why workforce legislation has to come in, so the argument goes. By requiring health and care services to set and maintain appropriate staffing levels by law, it is hoped governments and employers would almost certainly be required to ensure more nurses are trained.

The details of the RCN campaign have still yet to be ironed out. Ms Davies has said the college is currently working with experts to look at evidence from around the world about what exactly it should campaign for. Possibly staff-to-patient ratios, and possibly different laws in each UK country – and maybe for different services, she later said.

But whatever the final approach, the campaign is sorely needed. When it comes to staffing, nurses – and patients – deserve a legal safety net instead of last-minute emergency tactic like redeployment.

If governments are serious about improving the safety of the UK’s health and care services, they will take note and bring in or extend staffing laws as a priority.

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