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'Clear and present danger' to patient safety as NHS prioritises budgets over safe staffing, says report

NHS staffing levels will have to be cut at the expense of patient safety if the government is to meet its efficiency savings, warn researchers.
Staffing cuts

Patient safety is under clear threat in an NHS prioritising budgets over safe staffing, according to new independent research.

Despite the need for more nurses in the system, NHS staff numbers will have to be cut if the government is to solve the financial deficit, warns the King’s Fund think tank in its latest report.

‘If restoring financial balance is the government’s highest priority, it is inevitable that staffing levels will need to be reduced,’ wrote the authors of Deficits in the NHS 2016.

‘This presents a clear and present danger that patient safety and quality of care will be compromised and staff morale damaged further.’

King’s Fund senior policy adviser Helen McKenna said public debate on the issues was now needed.

So far, the NHS has only made £1 billion of the £22 billion efficiency savings needed by 2020/21 to close the funding gap

Patient safety is under clear threat in an NHS prioritising budgets over safe staffing, according to new independent research. 

Despite the need for more nurses in the system, NHS staff numbers will have to be cut if the government is to solve the financial deficit, warns the King’s Fund think tank in its latest report.

‘If restoring financial balance is the government’s highest priority, it is inevitable that staffing levels will need to be reduced,’ wrote the authors of Deficits in the NHS 2016.

‘This presents a clear and present danger that patient safety and quality of care will be compromised and staff morale damaged further.’

King’s Fund senior policy adviser Helen McKenna said public debate on the issues was now needed.

So far, the NHS has only made £1 billion of the £22 billion efficiency savings needed by 2020/21 to close the funding gap set out in the Five Year Forward View.

‘Politicians need to be honest with the public about what the NHS can offer with the funding allocated to it,’ Ms McKenna said.

‘It is no longer credible to argue that the NHS can continue to meet increasing demand for services, deliver current standards of care and stay within its budget. 

‘This is widely understood within the NHS and now needs to be debated with the public.’

Meanwhile, the Health Foundation called for a new national approach to workforce policy and funding.

The charity's new workforce report, Staffing Matters; Funding Counts, co-authored by workforce expert James Buchan, identifies nursing as an area that needs a strong policy focus.

Its figures show almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is 50 or older, with the NHS facing significant growth in retirements over the next five to ten years.

Key findings include:

•    Mismatches between funding and staffing levels and repeated reorganisation have led to a ‘boom and bust’ approach to the NHS frontline.

•    Less costly, reactive and short-term solutions are needed. Those being used to tackle current problems are a quick-fix sticking plaster on deep-seated and systemic NHS problems.

•    More effective use of temporary staff and international recruitment can help to buy time while a more long-term, sustainable approach is implemented.

•    Investment in current staff should not be disadvantaged by an overemphasis on introducing new roles.

Health Foundation research and economics director Anita Charlesworth said workforce policy should be overhauled ‘so staffing and funding are treated as two sides of the same coin’.

She said: ‘We urgently need a fully aligned and coordinated national approach to workforce policy and planning, underpinned by greater predictability on funding, to ensure the NHS can sustain high quality health care for the long term.’

The Department of Health (DH) has been approached for comment.

Further information

Read Staffing Matters; Funding Counts from the Health Foundation

Read Deficits in the NHS 2016 by the King's Fund

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