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NHS will miss target for 50,000 more nurses by 2024, leaked data shows

Exclusive: Ministers are ‘burying their heads in the sand’ over the nursing workforce crisis, nursing union leaders warn

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 17 June 2022 16:09 BST

The government is set to break Boris Johnson’s key manifesto pledge to add 50,000 NHS nurses to the workforce by 2024, leaked data shows.

New NHS modelling, seen by The Independent, indicates that the government could miss its target by more than 10,000.

It comes despite claims from health secretary Sajid Javid in April that the government was on track to meet its election promise.

The data from NHS England forecasts that tens of thousands of nurses are expected to leave the NHS in the next two years, as workforce pressures lead to a “snowball effect” of staff quitting.

Nursing union leaders have criticised the government for a “lack of transparency” around the way in which it is measuring its efforts, and warned that ministers were “burying their heads in the sand” in regard to the nursing workforce crisis.

Meanwhile, leading think tanks have told The Independent that even meeting the 50,000 target may not be enough to cope with future demand on the NHS.

The NHS England forecasts, seen by The Independent, show two potential scenarios: one in which the target is missed by 11,862 full-time nurses, and another in which it is missed by 5,715.

The first forecast is based on predictions of more than 7.8 per cent of nurses leaving in 2023, and 8.5 per cent leaving in 2024, driven by “increased burnout and fatigue”.

The second prediction rests on a hypothesis of 7.4 per cent leaving in 2023, and 7 per cent in 2024, driven by economic issues such as pressure on wages and insufficient pay levels in the NHS compared with the wider market.

In March, the health secretary said the government was on track to meet its commitment, with 27,000 more nurses working compared with the 291,000 there were in September 2019.

However, experts told The Independent that the figure could be misleading, as it may include the 12,000 staff who temporarily came back to work during the pandemic. It is not clear how many of these nurses will stay after September 2022 when the temporary scheme comes to an end.

Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: “Last year alone, more than 25,000 registered nurses left the profession in the UK – a sharp rise from 2020-21. Retaining experienced staff is a major challenge for ministers.

“Official figures from the NHS only weeks ago showed that the number of unfilled nursing jobs is rising, not falling. Ministerial boasts sound increasingly hollow.

“The government has not been transparent about how it calculates its figures, and ministers are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to the scale of the nursing workforce crisis – patient safety is at risk. We need a fully funded health and care workforce strategy, not politically expedient targets.

“Government must give nursing a fair pay rise to immediately show it values staff – helping to recruit and retain staff and ensure patients get the quality of care they deserve.”

A review of NHS pay rates is currently being undertaken. The RCN is calling for a nine per cent increase in nurses’ pay, while the government has asked its pay review body to cap pay increases to 3 per cent.

Prof James Buchan, senior fellow at the Health Foundation, a charity focused on improving healthcare, said he could not be confident that even hitting the 50,000 target would be enough to meet the growing demand in the NHS.

He explained that the UK is falling short when it comes to training new nurses, and that international recruitment is only a “quick-fix solution”. He added: “In the absence of a national NHS workforce plan, and with only an arbitrary target to aim for, there is no sense of an endgame.”

Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are well over halfway towards meeting the government’s commitment of recruiting 50,000 extra nurses and we remain confident that the target will be met by March 2024.

“We published a delivery update in March setting out progress and our plans on how to respond rapidly to changing circumstances to ensure we meet our target.”

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