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Congress demands action on recruitment to avoid ‘precipice’

RCN congress calls for urgent action on recruitment and retention, agreeing that the profession stands at a precipice

Nurses called for urgent action on recruitment and retention in the profession at RCN congress on Sunday, saying it stands at a ‘dangerous workforce precipice’.

Congress condemned the UK government’s failure to recognise the effects of its policies on the ability to sustain the profession.

Delegates at the conference in Belfast called for credible action to address nurse shortages, which are estimated at 40,000 in England alone.

Speaking to the gathering of some 4,000 nurses, RCN UK stewards committee London member Michael Smith summarised the pressures facing the profession.

‘Are you overstretched? Understaffed? Exhausted at work? Does that sound familiar?’ he asked the packed auditorium.

Mr Smith said


Delegates vote on a motion demanding action on retention and recruitment at RCN
congress in Belfast on Sunday. Picture: John Houlihan

Nurses called for urgent action on recruitment and retention in the profession at RCN congress on Sunday, saying it stands at a ‘dangerous workforce precipice’.

Congress condemned the UK government’s failure to recognise the effects of its policies on the ability to sustain the profession.

Delegates at the conference in Belfast called for credible action to address nurse shortages, which are estimated at 40,000 in England alone.


Michael Smith summarised pressures facing the profession.
Picture: John Houlihan

Speaking to the gathering of some 4,000 nurses, RCN UK stewards committee London member Michael Smith summarised the pressures facing the profession.

‘Are you overstretched? Understaffed? Exhausted at work? Does that sound familiar?’ he asked the packed auditorium.

Mr Smith said the lack of nurses in the UK was affecting patient safety and putting incredible pressure on staff. ‘The severe lack of registered nurses means that all too often our patients miss out on vital care,’ he said.

‘And those of us left in the profession are left to struggle to pick up the pieces.’

Exhausted and undervalued

Mr Smith said a botched Brexit that sent EU nurses out of the UK and the abolition of undergraduate and postgraduate bursaries in England were further fuelling the staffing crisis, and nurses now stood ‘at a dangerous workforce precipice’.

Addressing health ministers across the UK he urged them to recognise the coming crisis, adding: ‘When are you going to wake up and see the impact these policies are having on nurses’ morale, career pathways and retention?

‘Over a third of nurses are over 50, and will not stay around any longer than they have to when they are exhausted and feel undervalued and exploited or unable to give safe care.’

In a call backed by delegates, Mr Smith urged nurses to send a clear message to government to:

  • deliver fair pay for nurses
  • enact safe staffing legislation across the UK (currently it is only enacted in Wales)
  • reintroduce support for nursing students

 Ismalia De Sousa said nursing in the UK could be reaching a tipping point.
Picture: John Houlihan

Portuguese-trained clinical nurse specialist in stroke Ismalia De Sousa warned congress what would happen if nurses did not take up the fight. She said there had been ‘years of continuous shortfall of nurses to deliver safe care, low morale, pay below inflation, nurses leaving their country, A&E and other services overflowing with patients, and insufficient beds.’

‘This possible future is Portugal’s reality, and last year my fellow Portuguese nurses had had enough,’ Ms De Sousa told congress, describing how in September a large majority of Portuguese nurses participated in a five-day strike over the conditions that patients were having to endure.

She said nurses must not allow the UK to go down the same path. ‘In this country we will be reaching a tipping point and we must not let it go that far. The government needs to see the effect of its policies. We cannot stay silent now.’

Importance of bursaries

Children's nursing student Lyndsey Firth, a member of the RCN students committee, said the importance of student bursaries could not be overstated.

‘Without us… there is no future in nursing, and then there will be no future for anybody,’ she said. ‘Students are leaving university with debt in excess of £50,000. This year is the 50th year of RCN students, and we need to remember the number 50 for the right reason, not because of debt.’

Andrea Wilson, from the RCN’s outer north west London branch, also supported the motion, and spoke powerfully about how staffing levels were affecting nurses in her community. ‘They are tired, they work with no lunch breaks, they go home late, they stay beyond their working hours,’ she said. ‘We cannot continue.’


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