Quality costs money: The main problem with NHS staff is that we need more


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Not long into his tenure as Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt found his calling. The publication in February 2013 of the Francis inquiry into poor care standards at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust gave him his raison d’être.

He would be the Health Secretary to shine the bright light of scrutiny on the wards of the NHS, exposing poor care and taking a short rein with those managers and clinicians responsible for it. His troops on the ground have been the inspectors of the new-look Care Quality Commission. Thanks to them, we were promised, patients would be able to see which were the best hospitals and make their choice accordingly. A brave new world indeed.

Very often though, Mr Hunt’s inspectors have found other issues worth their time. They did not find many examples of uncaring or unprofessional staff. Of the four core standards on which hospitals are measured, barely any perform poorly for “caring”. But, as we report today, 68 out of 89 hospitals inspected in 2014 and 2015 do have a common problem: short-staffing.

Hospital managers have known for some time that this is an issue. In the months after the Francis report, many invested heavily to get more doctors and nurses on the wards, often bringing in expensive recruitment agencies. They could be forgiven for thinking that, with Mr Hunt’s new focus on improving safety, they had the Health Secretary’s blessing.

What they did not have was a guarantee that the cost would be covered. Predictably, the hospital sector is now in deep financial trouble, facing a £2bn deficit. Yet still the CQC is finding and reporting shortages, and hospitals face an impossible choice between high standards of care and fiscal solvency.

The inspection regime created by Mr Hunt is telling him loud and clear that the NHS needs more staff. That costs money. Will he have the courage to make the case to the Treasury?