Online nursing degrees: the government’s plan for solving the workforce crisis

RCN says NHS Long Term Plan falls short of solving nurse shortage

RCN says NHS Long Term Plan falls short of solving nurse shortage

Theresa May takes time out from talking about Brexit to publish her health service strategy.
Picture: Getty

Cheap online nursing degrees could be offered to students under the government's NHS Long Term Plan.

The courses, which ministers claim could be available from as early as next year, would be offered for 'substantially less' than the £9,250 maximum annual fee students commonly pay now. They would be linked to guaranteed NHS placements. 

'This is no magic bullet'

However, the RCN said the idea is no 'magic bullet' for the workforce crisis in England, where around 12% of nursing posts are vacant.


The projected overall annual increase in the NHS budget – from £115 billion today to £135 billion in 2023-4 – ministers say

The Council of Deans of Health, the body that represents university nursing and midwifery faculties, expressed scepticism too. 

Prime minister Theresa May said the long-awaited, ten-year plan for the NHS was a 'truly historic' moment. Among its ambitions, the plan outlines the use artificial intelligence and genomics in stroke, cancer and heart attack to help save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Main ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan

  • Cancer Whole-genome sequencing for children with cancer and young people with rare genetic disorders, in addition to adults with certain rare conditions or specific cancers. Early diagnosis will have improved from a half to three-quarters of cancers by 2028, saving 55,000 lives a year
  • Diabetes Expansion of the Diabetes Prevention Programme. From April, tens of thousands of people with type 1 diabetes to receive a wearable sensor known as the FreeStyle Libre on prescription
  • Emergency medicine Every hospital with a major emergency department will offer ‘same day emergency care’ for patients to be treated and discharged with the right package of support, without needing an overnight stay
  • Learning disability Children and young people with a learning disability who are inpatients or at risk of being admitted to hospital to have a key worker, while NHS staff will receive information and training on supporting individuals who have a learning disability
  • Mental health Expanding community-based services in schools to 345,000 more children and young people, new waiting time targets for people experiencing difficulties. An around-the-clock mental health helpline will be established
  • Primary care An extra £4.5 billion to go to out-of-hospital care and '24/7 rapid response teams' made up of nurses and others to provide patients with urgent care and support in the community as an alternative to hospital. Digital GP consultations
  • Public health Specialist alcohol care teams to be set up in 50 hospitals. Nurses and doctors to talk to drinkers and smokers about their habits and how to quit
  • Respiratory Investment in earlier detection and better treatment of respiratory conditions to prevent 80,000 hospital admissions, and use of 'smart inhalers' that track, monitor and prompt, through mobile phones, asthma medication use


RCN acting chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair said 40,000 nurse vacancies in England was a huge obstacle to the plan's success. Other experts said a workforce plan is urgently needed.

Professor Kinnair said: 'As the prime minister said in her speech today, the NHS’s biggest asset is its staff – it is strange then that this plan offers no money for nurses to develop the specialisms and skills patients need.


The number of lives the government claims will be saved by its long-term plan

'Online courses are presented as a magic bullet to solve the workforce crisis. Nursing degrees demand both academic and practical skills, which students learn from contact with professionals and peers, a model not easily replicated online, even with clinical placements.'

'Online degrees would need government subsidy'

And Council of Deans of Health chair Brian Webster-Henderson cautioned: ‘We need to see further details on this. Nursing is a high-cost subject and is unlikely to be much cheaper when accessed online so the government would need to subsidise this route.

He added online degrees would require ‘careful implementation.’

‘Ministers must say more about how they plan to address the staffing shortages that are playing havoc with the NHS’s ability to cope’

Sara Gorton, head of health, Unison

The NHS Long Term Plan also contains a pledge to reduce the nurse vacancy rate to 5% by 2028.  In some areas, such as mental health, it is as high as 17%.

Workforce implementation plan 

A workforce implementation plan will be published 'later in 2019', the document states. This promise is made in the face of the current Brexit-related political turmoil that casts doubt on the very survival of the government.

Sara Gorton, Unison's head of health.
Picture: Barney Newman

A national workforce group overseen by NHS England, NHS Improvement and Health Education England, will be set up and will include the royal colleges and NHS staff representatives. 

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: 'Ministers must say more about how they plan to address the staffing shortages that are playing havoc with the NHS’s ability to cope.'

NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said staffing would remain 'a headache' in the NHS for years to come.

He said: 'Getting a long-term strategy for the NHS workforce is crucial.'

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