Only a complete U-turn on government policy will avert a crisis caused by the demand for nurses far outstripping supply, according to the Royal College of Nursing.
A major survey carried out for the RCN by the Institute for Employment Studies showed that the number of nurses retiring was set to increase massively in the next five or 10 years.
The average age of nurses was now 39, and 20 per cent were 50 or over. As many as a quarter of nurses could qualify for early and normal retirement by the millennium.
In addition, the rate at which nurses were quitting the NHS rose from 5 per cent to 6 per cent last year, with many citing poor job satisfaction as the main reason. One in five of the 6,000 nurses questioned said they expected to leave the NHS within two years.
On the supply side, intakes to pre-registration nurse education had dropped by 39 per cent since 1988. Although there were signs of this trend reversing, the effects would not be felt until the turn of the century. In the meantime, retirements were expected to increase as the workforce continued to age.
The size of the NHS registered workforce had shrunk slightly during the Nineties while a growing number of nursing posts remained unfilled. Recorded turnover - the rate at which nurses change jobs - was shown to have increased for the third successive year to 22 per cent.
At the same time, there was evidence that nurses were working harder and putting in longer hours. One in five had worked more than 48 hours in the week before the survey, and the average number of overtime hours worked had risen from 3.8 last year to 5.9 hours. There had also been a decline in the proportion of nurses receiving payment or time off for excess hours worked.
An RCN spokesman said the survey revealed that staff shortages were affecting every part of the NHS. He said: "It's going to lead to those nurses left in the system working longer and harder, because they won't put patient care in jeopardy.
"There will have to be an about turn on government policy on pay and conditions. The Government will need to recognise that one of the main reasons why people are not being attracted into nursing and are leaving is because they do not feel valued."
Yesterday, the joint negotiating council for nurses, midwives and health visitors called on their Pay Review Body to recommend a "substantial" national pay rise next year.
Christine Hancock, page 15Reuse content