Government to blame for hospitals' understaffing – RCN

RCN points to risk of a healthcare crisis as hospitals struggle to recruit nurses

The government was wrong when it reduced funding to nurse training places to pay for NHS reorganisation and make savings, according to the head of the RCN.

College general secretary Janet Davies reminded politicians of her advice not to reduce workforce numbers when she responded to latest NHS figures that suggest nine in ten NHS hospitals in England did not have sufficient nurses.

Ms Davies said: ‘Decisions were taken for financial reasons and nurse staffing lost out in the process.

‘When a ward or a community team does not have enough nurses, it can be harder to meet the needs of patients, harder to recognise deterioration and harder to manage conditions in the long term.’

Analysis of the figures showed trusts' own targets for optimum staffing levels were missed at 92% of sites analysed in August. This suggests the situation had worsened since January, when 85% of hospitals missed their staffing targets. The figures also showed 81% of hospitals did not have sufficient nurses working at night, while 79% missed their target for nurse staffing, day and night.

While the squeeze on pre-registration nurse training has made nurse recruitment difficult for employers, a Department for Health spokesperson insisted it was helping hospitals plug gaps in recruitment by introducing a cap on the amount agencies can charge trusts for nurses on their books, and by cutting what it calls back-office costs.

Ms Davies said the lack of nurses threatens a healthcare crisis this winter and would affect the wellbeing of staff struggling to cover for missing colleagues.

She added: ‘It doesn’t take much to tip services over the edge, and the NHS could be very vulnerable to a bad winter and any extra pressures.

‘Nurses will continue to grapple with increased demand, heavy workloads and extra hours to provide the best care they possibly can. But if the NHS has a chance of keeping up with demand it needs to think clearly about how it retains, incentivises and values its hardworking staff.’

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said the government's cuts to nurse training places had left hospital wards dangerously understaffed, forcing NHS managers to pay for expensive agency staff.

The government recently announced it would scrap the cap on how many students could take nursing degrees in order to encourage an additional 60,000 to enrol every year.

However, chancellor George Osborne announced in his spending review that he intends to replace bursaries with student loans – a decision that has been widely criticised by students and the wider profession.

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