Government 'is cutting nursing numbers by stealth'

Savage cuts to nursing are stretching resources "to breaking point", the largest nursing union says today.

Government plans to shift care out of hospital and closer to patients' homes are being used as a cover for the cuts, the Royal College of Nursing warns. It is also leading to patients being discharged too early, the RCN reports.

Over 26,000 nursing posts have been cut in the last two years and a further 61,000 are at risk, according to the RCN. The college says that, despite government rhetoric claiming more care is being provided outside hospital, there has been less than a 1 per cent increase in the community nursing workforce in the last decade and community nursing is "stretched to breaking point".

The figures come as Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, prepares to address the RCN congress today. In an interview with The Independent ahead of the speech, Mr Lansley denied there were mass reductions in nurse numbers. He also said staffing numbers were not the only factor in providing good patient care. "In some hospitals the staffing ratios are exactly what we would expect, but some wards are really excellent and some are really bad. This is about leadership," he said.

Mr Lansley added that a recent staff survey shows that, across the NHS, only 65 per cent of staff would recommend their hospital to friends or family.

A poll conducted for the college on the eve of its annual congress in Harrogate found 90 per cent of respondents agreed patients were being discharged sooner from hospital and with more complex needs than a year ago.

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the RCN, said: "Nurses are stretched too thin and many are approaching breaking point. Inevitably patients are going to suffer." The RCN supported a shift from hospital to community care but nurses reported patients being discharged from hospital before social-care support was in place.

The Health minister Simon Burns said he did not recognise the RCN's figures: "There are only 450 fewer qualified nursing staff in England than in 2009 and in 2011-12 we expect to train 2,300 community nurses and health visitors."

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