If the last nine years' Conservative government will be known for anything, it will be its heady cocktail of short-sighted cost-cutting and excellent PR. No single policy better exemplifies this terrifying mixer than the decision, made in 2017, to cut the nurses training bursary, at a time when the NHS was short around 35,000 nurses.
Until then, the nurse bursary had paid for the entirety of nurses’ training, plus an allowance of between £7,000 and £8,200, depending on location. Most nurses would leave university without any debt at all, which seems reasonable give a) how much service they provide during training b) their starting salary is only £23,000 a year and c) how essential they are (many studies have shown that the number of nurses in your hospital is by far the most important determinant of your chances of survival).
From 2017, trainee nurses were forced to pay their own way, leaving training with up to £51,000 of debt. Nurses had already faced frozen pay since 2010, already lost a quarter of their pay relative to inflation, already faced years of overwork and understaffing. The cuts were the final straw. After them, nurse applications fell off a cliff.
The government has now promised to "restore" the nurse bursary in the form of a £5,000-per-year grant, as well as an additional £3,000 for difficult-to-recruit specialist and regional nursing students. But is this really a restoration of the nurse bursary? No. Nursing students will still be lumped with £42,000 in debt; £42,000 more than they would have had just three years ago.
Today, the NHS lacks around 43,000 nurses. Since Brexit, the number of EU nurses immigrating to the UK has decreased by around 7,000 per year, while around 15,000 EU nurses have left over the last three years. While it's true that the number of non-EU nurses increased by around 10,000 over the same time period, they have not made up for the EU talent we've lost. The total number of nurses in the NHS has increased by only 2% since 2015, while demand has risen by around 20%.
While this reinvestment into training nurses is welcome, it is a woefully insufficient incentive to get nurses back onto wards in the numbers we need.
Instead, I imagine many EU nurses condemned for “treating this country as their own” and saving all those British lives will go back to saving lives in their own countries. And where will that leave us? With a xenophobic government and a health service teetering on the brink of collapse.
Dr Dominic Pimenta is a cardiology registrar in London.
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