Soaring NHS vacancies prompt warnings of ‘desperate’ understaffing

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By:  Health policy editor

Data shows number of available posts in England rose 15.8% over last year, and highlights shrinking nursing workforce

The number of vacancies in the NHS has soared by 15.8% over the last year, prompting warnings that the service is facing “desperate” problems of understaffing.

Figures for England released on Tuesday by NHS Digital show that the number of full-time equivalent posts available rose from 26,424 in March 2016 to 30,613 in March 2017 – the highest number on record.

A total of 86,035 such positions were advertised in the first quarter of this year, underlining the large number of health professionals and other staff that NHS trusts are seeking to fill.

However, NHS staff groups said the figures were a serious underestimate of the true number of vacancies, while NHS Digital itself admitted that they were undercounting, especially for nurses. The data also did not cover staff employed by GP surgeries, such as practice nurses.

NHS Digital said 11,485 (38%) of the 30,613 vacancies in March were for nurses and midwives – 17% up on the 9,784 in the same month last year – and another 6,575 (21%) for administrative and clerical staff. NHS Digital bases its figures on the number of positions advertised on NHS Jobs, the main NHS recruitment website.

But Janet Davies, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The true number of unfilled jobs is far higher than the number of online adverts and stands at 40,000 in England alone.”

NHS Digital data shows that the nursing workforce is shrinking. The total number of nurses employed by NHS organisations in England fell from 285,080 in April 2016 to 284,619 in April this year – down 461.

That follows the recent disclosure from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the nursing regulator, that more nurses are leaving the profession than joining it.

“This is a double whammy of bad news for nursing. At the very moment the NHS needs to be recruiting more nursing staff, we learn the number is falling and the NHS finds itself advertising for more jobs we know it cannot fill,” added Davies. Recruitment is so difficult that some trusts no longer bother advertising nursing vacancies because they know they will not fill them, she believes.

“A lethal cocktail of factors is resulting in too few nurses and patient care is suffering. More people are leaving nursing than joining – deterred by low pay, relentless pressure and new training costs,” said Davies. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, must scrap the 1% pay cap on NHS staff in order to help recruit the tens of thousands of nurses the NHS needs, she added.

Dr Mark Holland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “This figure highlights the desperate situation we face in recruitment in the NHS and is a culmination of neglect from the government in a number of areas.

“This data shows it is high time we saw steps taken to stop disincentivising staff: salaries must be fair, working conditions must be safe and sustainable, and clear career pathways must be in place.”

Unite, which represents over 100,000 NHS staff including paramedics and healthcare assistants, said “a perfect storm” of pay austerity, Brexit and constant reorganisation of the NHS has caused the “very disturbing” rise in the number of vacancies in the NHS in England identified by NHS Digital.


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