The health service has nearly 4,000 fewer senior nurses than it did just four years ago, according to a report by the Royal College of Nursing.
The RCN’s latest Frontline First report, published on Tuesday, warned that “reckless” cuts was “draining valuable leadership, experience and specialist knowledge” from the NHS.
It is the latest update from the Frontline First campaign, which was launched in July 2010 to monitor the impact of NHS efficiency savings targets.
The report reveals that hidden within wider nursing workforce trends is a “significant loss” of 3,994 fewer whole time equivalent (WTE) staff on Agenda for Change bands 7 and 8 – including senior ward sisters, community matrons, clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners.
An RCN freedom of information request to the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed that in 2010 there were 66,750 nurses in these bands in England, but this had fallen to 62,757 in September 2013.
The RCN said the NHS had treated staff with years of experience as “disposable” and a quick way to save money that meant knowledge and leadership was being lost when it was needed more than ever.
“Letting so many years of skills and experience vanish from the NHS is an utterly reckless policy”
The college also criticised trusts for “downbanding” senior staff into lower pay grades, which it said sent a message that experience and leadership was not valued.
The Francis report into care failing at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust highlighted the importance of having sisters able to properly manage their wards, noting their role was “universally recognised as absolutely critical”.
Peter Carter, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “Nurses have been telling us for some time that workforce reorganisations are disproportionately targeted at more senior staff with key specialist or leadership roles. This is something which has a knock-on effect on all staff.
“Senior nurses are ideally placed to act as a bridge between frontline staff and management, enabling resources to be used where they are most needed,” he said. “In the community, senior and specialist nurses often work with a great deal of autonomy and are often solely responsible for patients.”
Dr Carter added: “Just as worryingly is the loss of specialist clinical skills and experience which is inevitable when so many band 7 and 8 nursing posts are cut or left vacant. Letting so many years of skills and experience vanish from the NHS is an utterly reckless policy.”
“We also need to have a look at what skill mix gets the best outcomes for the patients”
Dean Royles, chief executive of the NHS Employers organisation, said: “These simplified figures help to tell part of a very complex story.
“Cash is flat, demand is rising, the way we care for people is changing,” he said. “Local nurse managers and their employers are doing a remarkable job in challenging circumstances and developing new models of care.”
He added: “Judging the quality of care by the numbers of one particular staff group may be attractive, but we also need to have a look at what skill mix gets the best outcomes for the patients. That’s the sophisticated debate we need to be having.”
Professor Ieuan Ellis, chair of the Council of Deans of Health, said: “Senior nurses are vital for providing expert and specialist care, leadership, educating and training students and supporting newly qualified staff through preceptorship.’
“The deep cuts to posts in community and mental health settings will make it even more difficult for students to access community and mental health placements and gain the experience they need in these areas.”
As Nursing Times has recently reported, specialist nurses are starting to fight back in some places.
A diabetes specialist nurse presented research last week at a conference on the importance of her role (page 6) and a programme led by the MS Trust has demonstrated the value of multiple sclerosis specialist nurses and helped secure jobs.
Last month, Ulster University academics also launched an online tool designed specifically to help specialist nurses prove the benefit of their work. The Apollo Nursing Resource provides nurses with access to essential management tools and advice, as well as offering networking opportunities with colleagues from a range of specialisms.