More than 300,000 extra nurses, doctors and other health workers are expected to be employed in the NHS in England over the coming years through radical plans to improve staffing in the health service.
The possibility of cutting the amount of time doctors spend in medical school, driving up the number of home-grown NHS staff and ramping up apprenticeship places are among the ideas to deal with severe staff shortages in the NHS.
The NHS’ first-ever long-term workforce plan has been hailed as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to put staffing in the service on sustainable footing over the next 15 years.
It comes as officials warned that, without action, there could be 360,000 vacancies in the health service by 2037.
Health leaders, who have previewed the details of the plan but have not yet released the full document, claim the strategy will help meet challenges of a growing and ageing population while addressing recruitment and retention issues currently leading to severe staff shortages.
There are currently 112,000 vacancies across the NHS in England.
Officials say the plans set out, along with new retention measures, could mean the health service has at least an extra 60,000 doctors, 170,000 more nurses and 71,000 more allied health professionals in place by 2036/37.
Alongside the plan, officials have asked the doctors’ regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), and medical schools to consult on the introduction of four-year medical degrees, which are five years at present, and medical internships, allowing students to start work six months earlier.
The workforce plan aims to drive up the numbers of home-grown NHS staff as the international pool of health workers is increasingly being drawn upon by other countries.
Officials said the document will:
– Double medical school training places to 15,000 by 2031, with more places in areas with the greatest shortages of doctors
– Increase the number of GP training places by 50% to 6,000 by 2031
– Almost double the number of adult nurse training places by 2031
– Ramp up apprenticeships so students can “earn while they learn” – it is estimated that one in six (16 per cent) of all training for clinical staff, including doctors, nurses and other health professionals, will be offered through degree apprenticeships by 2028, including 850 doctor apprenticeships
– A 40 per cent rise in nurse associate training places over five years
– New medical schools in parts of the country where there are the greatest staffing shortages.
Meanwhile, the NHS is to crack down on spending from expensive agency staff, with health leaders ordered to cut the bill by £10bn by 2036/37.
Nurses will also be allowed to start work as soon as they graduate in May, instead of in September as they do currently.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said the plan is about getting "care to patients quicker".
“What it will do is train more staff, more doctors, more nurses, more midwives, but also give more opportunities to the staff within the NHS in terms of apprenticeships, developing more skills, their continual professional development,” he told Sky News.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting “congratulated” the government on the announcement as he accused ministers of “nicking Labour’s plan”.
But Mr Streeting added that the health service needs reform, which “only Labour” can deliver. “We've got to stop thinking of it as a national religion and make sure that it is an institution and a system that delivers the best outcomes, and it's got the potential to do that, but it does need reform,” he told Times Radio.
Officials said the document will also have a “renewed focus on retention” – with more flexible working options and better career development.
It is hoped these plans, which are yet to be seen in full, along with reforms to pension schemes, could mean that up to 130,000 staff stay working in NHS settings longer.
The new plan – which was commissioned and accepted by ministers – has been backed by a £2.4bn investment by the government to fund additional education and training places over five years on top of existing funding commitments.
Health leaders have also agreed the plan needs to be revised every two years to accommodate changing needs across the service.
NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “The publication of our first-ever NHS long-term workforce plan now gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put staffing on sustainable footing for the years to come.
“As we look to adapt to new and rising demand for health services globally, this long-term blueprint is the first step in a major and much-needed expansion of our workforce to ensure we have the staff we need to deliver for patients.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “On the 75th anniversary of our health service, this Government is making the largest single expansion in NHS education and training in its history.
“This is a plan for investment and a plan for reform.
“In the coming years we will train twice the number of doctors and an extra 24,000 more nurses a year, helping to cut waiting lists and improve patient care.
“We will do more to retain our brilliant NHS staff and reform the way the health system works to ensure it is fit for the future.
“This is something no other government has done and will be one of the most significant commitments I will make as prime minister – acting as the cornerstone for our vision for a better, more modern healthcare system and putting the NHS on a sure footing for the long term.”
Mr Barclay said: “The NHS is the biggest employer in the country and holds the affection of the British people because of the staff who work around the clock to care for us.
“The NHS long-term workforce plan, backed by significant Government investment, shows our determination to support and grow the workforce.”
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he said: “This plan presents a historic opportunity to do things differently to help ease pressures on staff and increase capacity so they can spend more time with patients.
“Whilst we need to attract new staff, we also want to make sure we support and retain existing staff who possess invaluable skills and experience.”
Mr Streeting said: “The Conservatives have finally admitted they have no ideas of their own, so are adopting Labour’s plan to train the doctors and nurses the NHS needs. They should have done this a decade ago – then the NHS would have enough staff today.
“Instead, the health service is short of 150,000 staff and this announcement will take years to have an impact.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “This plan will come too late for the millions of people who have suffered in pain or died in hospital corridors waiting for treatment because the Conservative government refused to act.”