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Unprecedented set of risk factors looming over nursing workforce

Governments need to act now to ensure supply of safe staffing levels, warns RCN

Caroline White

Friday, 21 October 2016

Half of the nursing workforce is aged 45 or over and within a decade of eligibility for early retirement, warns a new report* from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) published today.

This compares with 10 years ago when just a third of the nursing workforce in England fell into this age bracket, indicating that the health service will be ever more reliant on finding new staff to plug the gaps, it says.

The report, which will inform the RCN’s labour market review and the evidence it intends to submit to the NHS Pay Review Body, highlights an unprecedented number of risk factors affecting the future supply of safe staffing levels.

In addition to the ageing workforce, the health service is subject to rising demand, poor workforce planning, changes to student funding, stagnant nurse pay and the potential impact of Brexit on international recruitment.

The RCN is urging the government to scrap its 1% pay cap for NHS staff, on the grounds that if nurses’ pay fails to reflect the rising cost of living, trusts will struggle to attract sufficient staff to provide safe patient care. A petition to that effect has already attracted 25,000 signatures.

RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary Janet Davies 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.”

She insisted that the government “has largely ignored the crisis facing the nursing workforce,” acting only to change the way nurse training is funded by introducing loans and saddling future nurses with debt.

“By making nursing like any other degree, even though a nurse’s salary is £8,000 less than the median graduate salary, the government has made it less appealing and created more uncertainty, not less,” she said.

The situation is equally pressing in Scotland, where the registered nursing and midwifery headcount rose by just 1% between 2009 and 2015.

RCN Scotland Director Theresa Fyffe commented: “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. This is no way to run our health services. Scotland’s population is getting older and more and more people are living with more complex conditions.”

She continued: “Demand for health care is going through the roof. And you only have to look at the latest NHS vacancy rate – which went up from 3.7% to 4.2% in June 2016 – to know that the very modest increase in staff is just not keeping pace with demand, with a number of health boards really struggling to recruit enough nursing staff.”

The report shows that student nurse intake in Scotland fell by a quarter between 2005-6 and 2012-13 – with swingeing cuts of 20% between 2010-/11 and 2012-13 – with numbers then beginning to rise again in 2013-14.

“While the recent increases in student numbers may seem reasonable, the Scottish government, health boards and Integrated Joint Boards – which are now responsible for integrated health and social care – need to get a lot better at workforce planning if Scotland is to avoid the workforce ‘boom and bust’ which has blighted our health services in recent years,” insisted Ms Fyffe.


* Unheeded warnings: health care in crisis. The UK nursing labour market review 2016. Royal College of Nursing, October 2016.

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