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Workforce: What we need now is a quick fix for nurse shortages

As vacancies rise, NHS England can buy time with international recruitment, says James Buchan

As vacancies rise, NHS England can buy time with international recruitment, says James Buchan


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A new tripartite report on the NHS workforce in England highlights the scale of the nursing shortage, now and into the future.

The report – Closing the Gap – carries the logos of the three health policy think tanks the Health Foundation, the King's Fund and the Nuffield Trust.  

The cost of doing nothing

Latest figures from NHS Improvement suggest there are more than 30,000 vacant NHS nursing posts. The workforce projections in the report highlight the cost of doing nothing. On current trends, the number of unfilled but required posts will rise to nearly 70,000 in five years, and ten years from now the gap could be up to 100,000.

The report also sets out what could be done to confront the problem, and makes it very clear that if the country is to meet the shortage challenge, it will have to combine immediate action with longer-term interventions.

‘England should be actively and ethically recruiting 5,000 international nurses per year’

The obvious long-term goal should be to train significantly more nurses. The problem, as we all know, is that England is struggling to train even as many as it did last year. The shift to student loans has blunted the flow of nursing students, which has been further blocked by poor capacity and response from education providers. Even if these problems are fixed, we cannot anticipate any significant improvement in the numbers for another five years at least.

The quick fix

In the interim, we need to buy time by increasing reliance on the relatively quick fix of international recruitment.

The report estimates that England should be actively and ethically recruiting 5,000 international nurses per year, but a harsh immigration regime has limited how many nurses can apply to enter the UK, with the sour odour of the Brexit debate already pushing some nurses from the European Union out of the country and putting others off a career in England.

We are on a promise that the new interim NHS workforce plan will be published soon. It needs to be a plan for a coordinated, whole-of-government action, backed by enough funds to ensure it is effective.


 

James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh


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