Chief nurse Jane Cummings urges critics to 'calm down' over safe staffing

England's chief nursing officer Jane Cummings has written to directors of nursing today to address what she claims are misconceptions about news that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is shelving its programme of work on safe nurse staffing guidelines.

The decision, announced by NICE last week, was greeted with dismay by nursing leaders. In a letter to the Times newspaper yesterday,  organisations including the RCN, the Council of Deans of Health, Unison, the Patients Association and RCNi's Nursing Standard described the move as a 'damaging step back not only for nursing but for all who use the NHS and care about its future'. 

'The need for independent evidence-based guidance on safe staffing has never been greater,' the letter adds.

Ms Cummings told RCNi her letter to nursing directors is partly designed to address 'misconceptions' about the suspension of NICE's work. 'There has been some noise about this on Twitter and in the Times and it is important we just calm down and people get to look at what we are doing and what out next steps will be,' Ms Cummings said.

'I do not think directors of nursing are against it. I have met around 70 directors of nursing, ranging from big teaching hospitals to small district general hospitals, and they have been very supportive. They think it is the right thing to do to include all professional groups in safe staffing. I have a good relationship with directors of nursing so people would tell me if they did not think something was right.'

NICE's announcement it will stop working on guidance for community, mental health and A&E nursing came a day after Ms Cummings wrote to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and Health Education England's chief excecutive Ian Cumming to inform them work on safe staffing guidance could be stopped. The letter said that rather than having a 'narrower focus on nursing and midwifery numbers', the NHS should look beyond professional boundaries to the staff needed for multiprofessional teams.

NHS England will now look at staffing across all groups as part of its review of urgent care and mental health services.

In today's letter Ms Cummings says she wants to address three 'misconceptions'. She insists NICE guidance on staffing in adult inpatient wards and maternity will remain in place; the move is not designed to save money – 'I would not suggest anything that would compromise public safety'  – and the Care Quality Commission remains free to make its own judgements about safe staffing.

She goes on to list six reasons why the approach to safe staffing is necessary. These include recognition that healthcare is increasingly delivered by a multiprofessional workforce and that much care takes place outside hospitals and crosses organisational boundaries.

The Department of Health commissioned NICE to produce a set of safe staffing guidelines following the recommendation by Sir Robert Francis in his 2013 report into care failings at Mid Staffs that linked poor care to chronic understaffing.

Ms Cummings said the decision to review staffing across different professional groups rather than in nursing alone did not represent a failure to implement Sir Robert's recommendation. 'I am clear what we are doing still fulfils the criteria of what was recommended. We will build on the work that NICE has already done,' she said.

To read the letter click here