Why is there a skills crisis in the NHS?

31 Jan 2017



The NHS is suffering one of its worst winters ever. A chronic lack of proper funding, a crisis in social care, and poor workforce planning means that the service simply cannot cope with current levels of demand.

We have learned this month from a HSJ investigation that almost every NHS acute hospital in England is failing to meet its own nurse staffing targets. Despite attempts to recruit and train up more nurses, 96 per cent of NHS trusts failed to meet their own planned level for registered nurses working during the day in October 2016.

The NHS skills shortage is getting worse

The REC has been consistent in its message to government that the caps and controls on agency spend will make it more difficult for the NHS to meet safe staffing levels.

The deterioration in staffing levels appears to have been accelerated by the introduction of tougher caps on agency spending last April and July.

What’s more, our latest survey of health and social care members revealed that almost 70 per cent of agencies believe that limits on EU workers coming to the UK would have a negative impact on their ability to supply staff to the NHS – potentially exacerbating the skills crisis.

The deterioration in staffing levels appears to have been accelerated by the introduction of tougher caps on agency spending.

Now that government has decided to scrap bursaries for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, there is no obvious solution to these workforce issues. The HSJ investigation found that some trusts are employing unusually high numbers of healthcare assistants, possibly in an attempt to fill nursing vacancies with cheaper (but less qualified) staff.

The problem is by no means limited to nurses; we are consistently seeing a lack of doctors on wards – at all levels.

Despite the fact that currently a quarter of our doctors come from overseas, the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt has said that he plans for the NHS to be ‘self-sufficient in doctors’ and less reliant on overseas recruitment. He has already announced a 25 per cent increase in the number of funded medical student places, which will be made available from September 2018.

However, simply replacing overseas doctors with UK-trained ones won’t increase the total number working in the NHS, and won’t solve the current dependence on agency doctors to prop up the NHS workforce.

NHS demand for staff continues to increase

The latest data from our monthly publication Report on Jobs reveals a sharp increase in demand for nursing, medical and social care staff. The government must harness the benefits that agency doctors and nurses bring to the NHS in providing safe care to patients – especially at times of increased pressure on the system.

The REC’s core message remains the same: we understand the need for cost savings but the current caps are jeopardising staffing levels and potentially patient safety.

The government must put plans in place to ensure that new doctors and nurses are attracted to work in the areas where there is the greatest need, and there has to be a greater focus on retaining the staff that the NHS already has.

REC members can play their part in ‘talking-up’ the work that they do and highlighting the valuable contribution they make to the NHS.

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