Pandemic exposed a UK ill-equipped for surge in demand for nurses

Nurse workforce had no spare capacity even before COVID-19 – which is why fully-funded nurse recruitment and retention plans are urgently needed
nurse nursing in a COVID ward during the pandemic

Nurse workforce had no spare capacity even before COVID-19 – which is why fully-funded nurse recruitment and retention plans are urgently needed

nurse in PPE at a bedside during the COVID-19 pandemic
The pandemic intensified pressures on nurses already all too familiar with shortstaffing Picture: Alamy

Nurses went into the COVID-19 pandemic as an already-depleted workforce, a report shows.

An RCN report on staffing, published today, reveals the extent to which nurses were concerned about safe staffing even before the pandemic began. Figures from a college survey back in January 2020 revealed 73% of 27,000 respondents said staffing on their most recent shift had been insufficient and did not meet the needs of patient safety.

UK’s health and care systems ill-prepared for pressures of pandemic

The stark figures are prompting the RCN to call on UK governments to explain how ministers plan to increase nurse numbers.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: ‘The past two years have revealed the extent of how ill-prepared the UK was for the additional pressures on the health and care system during the pandemic.

‘Governments must take decisive action to significantly grow the domestic nursing workforce. Robust policy and investment measures are needed as a matter of urgency.’

Reliance on international nurse recruitment

Only 56% of new people joining the UK nursing register in 2021 were trained in the UK, the RCN said, making the point that over-reliance on international recruitment comes at a cost to other countries.

The RCN wants a funded health and care workforce plan that includes ‘fair’ pay for nursing staff, as fears grow that more will leave the profession.

The college’s survey found one in five nursing registrants were aged over 56 and so approaching retirement, or considering leaving the profession earlier, given the pressures they have faced during the pandemic.

Survey findings

  • 57% of respondents said that patient care was compromised on their most recent shift
  • Almost 47% of respondents said they felt exhausted and negative
  • Three in five (59%) said they were unable to take the breaks they were supposed to
  • Almost two thirds (65%) said they worked additional hours

Source: RCN staffing report

Departures from NMC register

In November 2021, the Nursing and Midwifery Council revealed 13,945 nurses, midwives, and nursing associates left the register in the previous six months, up from 11,020 in the same period in 2020, representing a four-year high.

The RCN report comes on the day health and social care secretary Sajid Javid’s plan to tackle the near six million patient backlog had been expected to be published. Mr Javid denied reports the Treasury had blocked the plan, claiming it would be released shortly.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government stands by a 2019 election promise to have 50,000 more nurses in the workforce by 2024. The spokesperson cited an annual training grant for nursing students as one means of achieving this.

RCN Staffing for safe and effective care report

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