With an ageing workforce, nurse numbers is no laughing matter
The health secretary’s defence of his pledge takes the focus off the real point, says James Buchan
The health secretary’s defence of his pledge for 50,000 ‘more’ nurses takes the focus off the real point
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock recently mounted what was termed a ‘tongue-in-cheek defence’ of his pledge to increase nurse numbers in the NHS in England.
Speaking at the launch of the Florence Nightingale Foundation academy in January, he said critics of the government’s ‘50,000 more nurses’ policy did not understand the maths.
Taking account of nurses retiring and existing vacancies
Mr Hancock reportedly drew laughter when he said: ‘We have made a commitment to 50,000 more nurses. Not necessarily 50,000 new nurses, although it’s interesting that there are more new nurses coming in over the next five years than 50,000. But let’s not let those who can’t understand the maths – the difference between new and more – get in the way of good policy.’
The Conservative party manifesto commitment was to have 50,000 ‘more’ nurses by 2024-25. This was immediately brokered down to 31,000 additional nurses because part of the plan was to encourage about 19,000 existing nurses to stay on.
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As Mr Hancock hinted, the natural inflow of newly graduated nurses from UK preregistration education up to 2024-25 will likely allow the target to be met, if it is defined as ‘new’ nurses.
But this obviously takes no account of overall outflow across the same period, or the need to fill more than 44,000 registered nurse vacancies in the NHS in England alone.
Drawing attention away from the real problem
International recruitment will likely be ramped up, but more needs to be done to retain nurses, especially with an ageing workforce and more nurses nearing retirement age.
Staffing levels also need to be addressed urgently. This could improve staff retention by reducing nurses’ workloads, making NHS nursing less stressful.
Policy and politics are often about deflection – drawing attention away from the real problem by turning attention to another. In this case, focusing on what ‘more’ or ‘new’ may mean in the context of the pre-election promise is no laughing matter.
The real point is whether the 50,000 target, however it is defined, will be ‘enough’ nurses.
James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
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