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Government ‘asleep at the wheel’ as NHS job vacancies hit ‘staggering’ high

‘We cannot afford to lose a single professional, and patients pay a heavy price,’ warns Royal College of Nursing chief

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
,Samuel Lovett
Friday 02 September 2022 09:04 BST
Boris Johnson tell public to buy £20 kettle to save £10 a year on energy bills

NHS leaders have warned of a “staggering” level of staff vacancies, as one in 10 NHS jobs lie vacant.

The number of unfilled NHS jobs hit a new high of 132,000 in June according to new data, prompting health service chiefs to issue serious warnings to ministers of an “all-engulfing NHS crisis”.

The vacancy rate now stands at 9.7 per cent, records show, with 46,828 nursing posts currently unfilled and 10,582 doctor roles remaining empty.

The figures emerged as health secretary Steve Barclay claimed that the billions spent on management across the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) needed to be “streamlined” so that the money was used on frontline care.

Mr Barclay said at a Policy Exchange event on Thursday that the government had set up an “international recruitment taskforce” as part of its response to the high number of vacancies in the NHS.

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The general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Pat Cullen, said that nurses listening to Mr Barclay’s speech would “think the government is really asleep at the wheel”.

She said: “Two weeks before we open our strike ballot, these stark figures reveal what is happening in England’s NHS – record numbers of unfilled nursing jobs, and rising fast, too. Tens of thousands of experienced nurses left last year, at the very moment [when] we cannot afford to lose a single professional, and patients pay a heavy price.”

The RCN chief urged the incoming prime minister to “give nursing staff a fair pay award as part of addressing the all-engulfing NHS crisis”.

Alex, a young nurse from Bristol, said: “I see a lot of my colleagues leaving the NHS to do agency nursing, where you have flexibility with when you work, and get paid what you’re worth. It’s a no-brainier for them.

“I personally have seriously considered not leaving nursing, but leaving the country. Australia and New Zealand pay their nurses better, and have a better work/life balance.”

He said that the health and social care sectors are being “bent over a barrel” by the government, which has refused industry requests to increase pay to match rising inflation.

The interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the new figures on NHS vacancies were “staggering” and “further proof that the NHS simply doesn’t have enough staff to deliver everything being asked of it”.

Recent data on adult social care services shows that vacancy rates are even higher for this sector, with 165,000 unfilled jobs at the end of 2021-22, and a 12 per cent vacancy rate as of July.

Setting out his key priorities for the NHS, Mr Barclay said the “number one” task for the DHSC was to address ambulance handover delays. He said the focus was on reducing delays at a “small number of trusts”, which account for almost half of delays nationally.

Data from the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives shows that more than 100,000 patients are likely to have come to harm this year due to delays.

Ahead of making the speech, the health secretary had been expected to suggest a slimming down of NHS priorities in an effort to deal with a difficult winter. It was reported that the areas facing cuts would include cancer, mental health and maternity services. However, during his speech, the health secretary outlined these areas as the “big priorities for the NHS”.

When challenged about the reports, he said: “There’s lots and lots of smaller things that the NHS has said that it’s prioritising,” adding that it would be up to local leaders to decide the top areas on which they wished to focus.

Mr Barclay also discussed longer-term priorities for the health service, claiming that there are 53,000 staff in organisations across the NHS in England “where the majority are not providing direct patient care”, adding that this figure did not include management positions.

He continued: “My point is this is not just an issue of cost. It is also about effectiveness. Because too much management can be a distraction to the front line. Staff at the centre need to streamline the administrative burden of those on the front line, and not risk adding to it.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The health secretary has laid out his ambition to reduce both the overall numbers and the costs associated with NHS management. At best this a false economy, and at worse it will damage the NHS further.

“The harsh truth is the new government will inherit an NHS in deep crisis, with 138,000 staff vacancies, one in seven patients waiting to be discharged from hospital because of a lack of social care provision, and severe underinvestment in NHS buildings and estates. What NHS leaders need to see urgently is a clear and coherent plan that addresses this health service emergency.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are boosting NHS recruitment with almost 4,100 more doctors and over 9,600 more nurses working across the NHS compared to last year. However, the overall number of posts is increasing as we expand services to bust the Covid backlogs and provide the best possible care to patients.

“We have also commissioned NHS England to develop a long term workforce plan to recruit and retain more NHS staff and have launched a taskforce to drive up the recruitment of international staff into critical roles across the system this winter.”

The spokesperson added the DHSC has recruited additional 29,000 nurses since 2019 nurses claimed it was on track to hit its target to have 50,000 more nurses by 2024.

This follows reports from The Independent in June of internal NHS modelling which suggests the government will fall short of its 50,000 target by more than 10,000.

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