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The three highest priorities to solve the workforce problem? Funding, funding, funding

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On Thursday, three respected independent think tanks – the Health Foundation, the King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust – released their report, Closing the Gap, which calls for an expansion of nurse training, with the scrapping of tuition fees for postgraduate courses and a grant for all students.

The recommendations are proposed to tackle the ongoing workforce shortage faced by the NHS. Indeed, the think tanks stated that the NHS in England could be recruiting and retaining enough staff to meet demand in five years if their suggestions were taken on board.

But the barrier to these recommendations succeeding – or even being seriously considered by government, is that they would need to be backed by a £900m annual funding increase.

“You could be forgiven for thinking you have heard similar statements before”

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said: “The government could do something to radically transform the situation with nursing over that decade; we could have enough staff domestically to meet demand.”

But she added that “it won’t happen without action and that action requires investment”.

You could be forgiven for thinking you have heard similar statements before. The issue remains that the resources available – funding – will have to change if the problem is to be seriously tackled.

The report also warned of a bleak future if no action was taken in reforming nurse training – projecting that there would be a 70,000 nurse shortage by 2023-24, rising to 108,000 in a decade.

We’ve heard of numerous ambitions since the start of the year – in particular with publication of the NHS Long Term Plan, which signalled a transformation of the NHS in England, setting out key areas for investment. But since the launch of the plan, many have pointed out that if these goals are to be achieved, we need a stable future workforce to deliver them.

The long-term plan did include a chapter on workforce and promised a comprehensive workforce plan later in the year, and pledged to increase nurse placements to expand the workforce. However, it made no mention of a return of the bursary.

It’s clear that this issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon. While it is somewhat reassuring to see that the workforce issues are at last firmly on the agenda of leaders, and that they are taking measures to improve recruitment, it is concerning that we are still without a strategy to fully address the problem in the long-term – and it when we do get a strategy it will clearly require investment.

“The workforce issues are not some distant threat”

And the workforce challenges don’t only concern recruitment of nurses domestically. Immigration policies and recruitment of overseas nurses have also been a focus of debate, and as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we will likely see more discussion around this.

One of the main takeaways from the report is that while it is looking to the years ahead, the workforces issue are not some distant threat – they are already here, and without urgent action, the problems will only grow.

We’ve already seen the drops in student numbers; nurses leaving the profession; and the falls in NMC registrations. Will our leaders take notice of these warnings and give the NHS the resources it needs to train, recruit and retain enough nurses for the future?

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