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Shortage of NHS nurses 'affects standard of care': Royal College blames unfilled posts and low pay for poor morale

PATIENTS in NHS hospitals are bearing the brunt of cuts in ward staff, vacancy freezes and the tendency to employ less-qualified nurses, the Government has been warned.

Two-thirds of nurses believe that staffing levels in their workplaces are too low to give patients adequate care and attention. Most say managers are ready to discuss complaints about nursing shortages, but appear powerless to remedy them.

More than half report unfilled nursing vacancies on their wards, with the South-east and Wales suffering the worst shortages.

A survey of 2,000 members of the profession, published on the eve of the annual conference of the Royal College of Nursing, which starts today in Harrogate, found that the majority felt demoralised and frustrated and struggled to make ends meet. They wanted counselling to combat stress and help them find better jobs.

Half the nurses surveyed by the Royal College of Nursing and Nursing Standard were the main breadwinners in their households, possibly reflecting the continuing effects of the recession. Four out of five nurses described the current 1.5 per cent public sector pay limit as unreasonable, with those in Scotland and the north-east of England likely to be the most dissatisfied.

But traditional perceptions of nursing as one of the most secure professions are changing. Three-quarters of nurses felt less secure in their jobs than they did a year ago.

Fewer than one in five respondents said he or she would recommend nursing as a career, although two-thirds hoped they would still be working in the NHS in two years' time.

Christine Hancock, the general secretary of the RCN, said the survey showed that managers either did not understand the value of qualified nurses, or were hamstrung by shortages of funds.

The extent of unfilled vacancies revealed in the survey supported evidence that growing numbers of young nurses were being 'trained for the dole', she said. 'The impact of staff cuts on the wards is patients not being moved as often as they should be, with higher risks of pressure sores, and not giving patients enough information about their treatment.

'Healthcare managers must realise that filling vacant nursing posts is cost-effective. Investing in qualified nursing care means that patients get better faster.'

The RCN conference is likely to hear severe criticism of NHS funding and the changing roles of nurses and midwives in the new managed market of health services. The NHS trust hospitals are increasingly anxious to employ nursing staff more flexibly, and on shorter contracts. But there are fears among professionals that employing fewer highly trained and specialised staff in favour of more 'multi-skilled' nursing staff could lower professional standards.