Nurses warn of 'dangerous' NHS staff cuts

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Cuts being planned in frontline NHS services in response to the squeeze on public spending risk sending the health service back to the days of hospital trolleys in corridors and year long waits for operations, the Royal College of Nursing warned today.

With over 5,000 NHS jobs earmarked for redundancy, the risks to patients would increase and the quality of care would decline, it said. "There is a clear link between the number of nursing staff and patient outcomes and patient safety," a spokesman for the RCN said. The NHS has been ordered to find £15-£20bn of savings over the next four years, but despite pledges from all three main political parties to protect frontline care, hospital trusts are already preparing to slash staff.

A survey by the RCN found that, in addition to planned cuts of 5,600 jobs, more than nine out of 10 ward sisters covering 180 hospitals said they were already often short-staffed by nearly a third on almost every shift.

Overall, hospital wards were operating with 13 per cent fewer staff than they officially need and half had a recruitment freeze in place, the RCN said.Figures obtained by the Conservatives under the Freedom of Information Act, published yesterday, showed 24 trusts were planning a net cut of 651 doctors over four years and 26 trusts were planning to cut 2,050 nurses.

Speaking at the opening of the RCN's annual congress in Bournemouth, Peter Carter, its chief executive, said targetting frontline services to deliver efficiency savings would increase risks for patients. "We are in no doubt that politicians genuinely want to protect frontline services and the vital care they deliver to patients. However, there appears to be a gulf between rhetoric and reality when it comes to finding efficiencies in the NHS. Despite assurances that the NHS budget will be protected, the reality is that trusts are making deep and dangerous cuts to staff numbers now, with further cuts planned."

The RCN says the chief executive of Southampton University NHS Hospitals Trust wrote to staff warning that the trust needed to reduce its wages bill to help realise savings of £100m over three to four years, which could mean the loss of 400 jobs this year (2010-11) and 200 jobs next year. "That is fairly typical of what is going on round the country," an RCN spokesman said. "The early signs are that trusts are looking at the workforce [for savings] and if they do, it will impact on the front line."

Nationally, the number of NHS clinical staff (doctors, nurses and therapists) in England has grown by a third since 1999, to 725,000. But the RCN said the cuts being earmarked were big enough to send a warning signal.

Dr Carter said: "History shows that whenever the NHS needs to make large efficiencies, trusts turn too quickly towards reducing staffing numbers."