NHS Learning Disability nurse numbers plummet

Author: Jo Carlowe

Learning Disability (LD) Nursing needs urgent investment to attract more staff to the profession.

This is the message from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) as new analysis shows the number of LD nurses in NHS inpatient and secure units has dropped by almost 60% in a decade.

The College’s call comes as LD nurses from across the country gather at a parliamentary reception at the House of Lords today [Friday 21 June] to mark 100 years since the first “mental deficiency nurses” were registered in England.

New analysis of official NHS workforce data by the RCN shows the extent of the reduction in the number of LD nurses.  The analysis reveals:

  • The NHS in England has lost 2,309 LD nurses since September 2009 when there over 5,500 working in the sector. There are now only 3,244 LD nurses in total employed by the health service since February 2019. 
  • Inpatient and secure services have borne the brunt of these changes; the number of nurses working in this sector halved since 2009. In February 2019, there were only 1,292 LD nurses in this area compared to 2,948 in 2009.
  • Despite a shift towards providing care in the community, the number of nurses employed to work in the homes of clients and their families decreased by a quarter in 10 years.

Commenting on the figures, RCN professional lead for learning disabilities Ann Norman said: “The standard of care we provide for people with learning disabilities and difficulties has come a long way since 1919, but we can’t rest on our laurels.

“In the 20th Century, there was a common perception that all we could do for people with intellectual disabilities was take them out of society for their own good. Now, thanks to LD nurses with the right skills, knowledge and experience, people can now usually receive the care they need in their community. But this progress won’t be sustained unless we tackle the current staffing crisis.

“As alarming as the staffing figures are, it's equally perplexing that there’s no register to tell us whether LD nurses who quit the NHS are going to work for contracted providers or leaving the profession altogether. This is why it’s time for a properly-resourced staffing plan based on clear evidence from the front line and the legislation and investment to see it through.”

Responding, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "Learning disability nurses perform a vital role supporting vulnerable people. Our interim NHS People Plan commits to take action to increase their numbers by raising the profile of the role and widening access through apprenticeship programmes.

"We are already working to ensure nurses in other sectors can easily move into disability nursing and postgraduate students who started studying last year will receive a £10,000 incentive payment once they take up employment in the field.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “The RCN has shone a much-needed light on the issue of learning disability nursing. The fragility of the education system for learning disability and mental health nursing is a risk we cannot ignore if we are to ensure people in need continue to get care.

“The Long Term Plan commits to supporting people into nursing. We need to make sure that the often overlooked fields of nursing are prioritised and attracted into this vital profession.”