The number of nurses and midwives working in the NHS has fallen by almost 6,000 in two years, figures show.

Since April 2010 the number of qualified nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff has fallen by 5,748, according to data from the Health And Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

Between May and June this year 840 posts were lost, according to the HSCIC's workforce statistics for England.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that the fall in the number of posts would cost the NHS more in the long run.

Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: "Our members have been highlighting the posts being slashed by NHS trusts for more than two years now, and we have proved that more than 60,000 posts are at risk.

"You simply can't take out this many posts without profoundly affecting patient care.

"One nurse being taken off a ward or out of a community nursing team can make a huge difference to the time the rest of the team can spend with patients.

"A reduction on this scale, happening over a short period of time, is something that the NHS as a whole will struggle to adapt to. It will also cost the health service money in the long run, as patients will start to be admitted to hospital unnecessarily.

"Rather than targeting the front line, the NHS should organise itself to keep people well and out of hospital, and nurses have a crucial role in making this happen.

"The RCN will continue to oppose a slash and burn approach to job cuts and will work to keep our members working and our patients safe."

Health Minister Lord Howe said: "There are always fluctuations in the workforce, and the reality is that there are almost a thousand more clinical staff working in the NHS than there were in May 2010, including nearly 3,500 more doctors, and over 900 extra midwives.

"And the number of staff delivering NHS services in the community is estimated to have risen by 25,000 in recent years, but not all these people are taken into account by the central official statistics.

"In contrast, the number of admin staff has fallen by over 18,000. This is creating savings that will help protect the NHS for future generations."