NHS faces ‘staffing crisis’ among nurses

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Ageing workforce and reliance on immigrants could create major problems, warns Royal College of Nursing

A shortage of talent, and an uncertain post-Brexit future for foreign workers, could lead to a major staffing shortage among nurses in the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned in a new report.

Half of all NHS nurses are now aged 45 and over, compared with one in three 10 years ago, according to the report, Unheeded warnings: health care in crisis. Half of British national nurses could retire within a decade, making the health service more reliant than ever on finding new staff.

The report highlights the dependence of NHS nursing services on foreign workers. Four in 10 new nurses trained overseas last year, with the majority coming to work in the UK from the EU.

Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said:

“The trends indicated in this report add up to a perfect storm of risks to the future supply of nursing staff. Many of these risks could have been avoided, and now immediate action is required.”

The ageing demographic of nurses is particularly acute in Scotland, where the registered nursing and midwifery workforce rose by only one per cent between 2009 and 2015, and student nurse intake numbers dipped between 2006 and 2013. Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of nurses in Scotland aged 45 or over has risen from 43 to 54 per cent.

The director of RCN Scotland, Theresa Fyffe, said:

“The last few years have been characterised by a ‘boom and bust’ approach to nursing workforce planning, with many of our health boards cutting the number of nursing staff, simply to balance their books, and then having to try and recruit more nursing staff as demand for services soared.”

Experts have urged the government to take immediate action on the nursing shortage, as some health boards are struggling to recruit at a time when “demand for healthcare is going through the roof”. The RCN has called on the government to scrap the 1 per cent pay cap for NHS employees, saying that, unless nurses’ pay reflects increases in the cost of living, services will struggle to provide sufficient staff to ensure safe patient care.

 The report concludes:

“Unless the UK government rapidly get to grips with the demand and supply factors causing the current nursing shortage and takes strategic action to address the supply issues, including recruitment and retention, the shortage is likely to get worse,”

“The potentially serious and dangerous implications for health and social care should not be underestimated. Without sufficient nursing staff and exponentially rising demand, patient care is being put at risk.”

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