Jeremy Hunt urged to set NHS safe staffing levels after Mid Staffs scandal

New report on patient safety likely to increase pressure on Health Secretary over cuts

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Every hospital ward in England must abide by a new minimum “safe staffing level”, campaigners have urged, on the eve of a major report into patient safety.

Minimum safe staffing levels were recommended six months ago by Robert Francis in his review of catastrophic care failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, which led to the needless deaths of up 1,200 patients. But the Government is yet to introduce a national standard for nurse to patient ratios, despite constant warnings from medical professionals.

Don Berwick, a former advisor on health to President Barack Obama, will publish a major review into patient safety at English hospitals, which will follow up on the key recommendations from the Francis Report.

Figures close to the new report said it was likely to come down in favour of minimum staffing levels – a recommendation that would increase pressure on the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to act.

“It is common sense that too few nurses on a ward compromises patient safety. It is time the Government agreed to implement this and other recommendations that came from the Mid Staffordshire inquiry,” Peter Walsh, chief executive of the patient safety charity Action against Medical Accidents told The Independent.

“Having had the privilege of advising Don Berwick and his committee, and based on the reactions I received, I would be very surprised if the report did not come down in favour of national guidance on minimum staffing levels for wards. This was one of the main learning points from the Mid Staffordshire inquiry and has been called for not only by Robert Francis QC and ourselves, but the Royal College of Nursing amongst others.”

The Government has been criticised for presiding over cuts to nursing posts at a time of increasing concern over patient safety in NHS hospitals. Nearly 5,000 nursing places have been cut since the Coalition took power in 2010, with 800 lost in April this year alone. While NHS England  plan to recruit more than 4,100 new nurses next year – a 2 per cent increase – health watchdog Monitor said last month that the recruitment drive was a “short-term fix” and will be followed by a further 4 per cent cut to nursing posts over 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The Safe Staffing Alliance, which includes the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Patients’ Association and the directors of nursing at a number of English hospitals, has campaigned for national minimum staffing levels since its foundation last year.

The group cites evidence from researchers at Southampton University, King’s College London and the National Nursing Research Unit who found that hospitals with eight patients per registered nurse saw around 20 more deaths a year than better-staffed hospitals. Another recent study by King’s College found wide variation in patient-nurse ratios at NHS hospitals, ranging from five patients per nurse to 11 patients per nurse at some hospitals.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said that Mr Hunt would have to act if the Berwick Report, which will be published on Tuesday, reinforced calls for minimum staffing levels.

"It's been six months since a public inquiry told the Government to get clarity on safe staffing levels,” he said. “Since then, the job cuts have carried on as if nothing had happened. If Berwick backs up the Francis report on staffing levels, the Government will have nowhere left to hide."