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March 2020

NHS doesn’t have the nurses it needs

A report from the National Audit Office has concluded that despite overall increases in the number of nurses in the last 10 years, the NHS does not have the nurses it needs.

The growth in nurse numbers (1%) has been lower than increases in activity in hospital and community health services (23%). As of September 2019, the overall vacancy rate in the NHS was 12%.

Primary care and community providers also have a higher proportion of older nurses, who are closer to retirement. The report found that although the number of primary care nurses rose by 9% between 2015 and 2019, the ‘nursing workforce as a whole is getting older, which means a higher proportion of nurses [are] approaching pensionable age: 35% of nurses in primary care are over the age of 55, and only 1% are under 25.

Around 85% of general practice nurses work part time, with only 16% working full time.

The NAO commented that the number of applicants for nursing degrees dropped significantly since the Government altered university funding arrangements and scrapped bursaries for nursing students in 2017, despite its stated intention to increase the number of places on nursing degree courses. New maintenance grants were announced for nursing students – but do not come into effect until September this year.

The NAO also highlighted the delay to publication of the ‘NHS People Plan’ – due last autumn – and points out that while NHS England’s budget is agreed until 2024, this was not the case for Health Education England’s budget to cover workforce education and training. The report adds: ‘The NHS Long Term Plan did not include detailed plans to ensure that the right workforce was in place to deliver the commitments.’

The NAO concludes: ‘Nurses are critical to the delivery of health services, and the NHS does not have the nurses it needs. There is a significant time lag (at least three to four years) before policies to train more new nurses can have an impact.’

National Audit Office. The NHS Nursing Workforce; 5 March 2020.