The Royal College of Nursing has called on its leaders to campaign for legally enforceable staff-to-patient ratios, despite fears that the measure could prompt a “race to the bottom” to minimum levels.
The RCN agreed a motion on safe staffing levels yesterday, during its annual congress in Liverpool, urging the RCN council “to campaign for legally enforceable staffing levels to safeguard standards in the current economic climate”.
Laura Collier, of the RCN central Manchester branch, told delegates there were two elements to the issue – that staff-to-patient ratios should be set and sustained, and that nurses should contribute to the levels, and take into account training for staff and students.
“This issue underpins the patient experience and can make or break a career”, she said, adding that “at this time of restructuring and redundancies, NHS trusts must not be allowed to compromise patient care”.
Statutory staff-to-patient ratios are already in place in California and Victoria, Australia.
Bruce Hopkins from the East Dorset branch backed the measure, arguing: “We need a legal stick to hit managers over the head with as they chip away at our working conditions”.
Clair Drot, from Southampton, argued legislation was necessary as under current arrangements, the Care Quality Commission has “no teeth” to enforce safe staffing levels.
However some expressed concern that bringing in minimum staffing levels could have unintended consequences.
Chris Butler urged delegates to view the motion with caution, as “in the wrong hands it could be no more than a rush to the rock bottom of staffing numbers”, and questioned whether the measure could work in practice.
Former RCN president Maura Buchanan said a minimum number would soon become the norm, and would not account for the mix of skills required on a shift.
The motion was passed by 372 votes to 92, with 26 abstentions.
During yesterday’s congress proceedings, the RCN also agreed to lobby for services to be provided on the basis of “outcome rather than income”, and to lobby for all students to be given “appropriate quality placements” leading to a minimum of a one year position with preceptorship on registration.