Goodwill of nurses is being abused, RCN head set to tell conference

The goodwill of nurses is “being abused” while the Government fails to solve the NHS staffing crisis, the head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will say.

In her first speech to the RCN’s annual conference, its chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair will say there is a human cost in failing to plug the gaps in the nursing workforce.

She will also accuse NHS bosses in England of quietly dropping publicly-available data which shows the proportion of registered nurses on NHS wards.

It has been replaced with a vague metric which does not distinguish between care provided by registered nurses or healthcare assistants, even though research suggests patients are more likely to die when cared for by less-skilled staff.

NHS data shows that one in eight nursing posts are vacant across England (around 40,000 posts).

In March, a report from the Nuffield Trust, Health Foundation and King’s Fund said more than 30,000 extra nurses are already needed but this will rise to nearly 70,000 nurses within five years.

And after a decade, the gap could be 100,000.

Dame Donna will tell 3,000 delegates at the RCN conference in Liverpool that the Government “must return the £1 billion” it took from nursing education.

She will say: “We will not stop until people are held to account for the desperate shortages each and every one of us has witnessed.

“Politicians must stop short-changing the public. They must stop the rot and put an end to the workforce crisis in nursing.

“Rather than only looking at the cost of educating and employing nurses, the Government must think about the true cost – financial and human – of not doing it.

“Employers, decision-makers and ministers with the power to change things should not let individual nurses take the blame for systemic failings.

“The Government must make people accountable in law for this situation and put back, into nursing higher education, the money it so catastrophically ripped out.

“The goodwill of nursing staff is being abused and politicians must know it is running out.”

Dame Donna will say that all health and social care services in England must have safe staffing levels and accountability set in legislation, after Scotland and Wales introduced similar laws.

Research published in April showed that a quarter of NHS wards routinely operate at unsafe staffing levels that threaten the safety of patients.

Experts from the University of Southampton said lessons learned from the Mid Staffordshire scandal in 2013 have been lost because of a lack of investment in staffing and a chronic shortage of nurses.

Following Mid Staffs, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommended that a level of eight patients per registered nurse should trigger a review of staffing.

But the Southampton study found one in four NHS wards regularly work at this unsafe staffing level.

Nursing reception at Buckingham Palace
Nursing reception at Buckingham Palace

Other work by the university has also shown that patients may be a fifth more likely to die on wards where nurses have been replaced by untrained staff.

Dame Donna will condemn the fact data is no longer available showing the proportion of nurses and support workers on shift at individual hospitals.

The data showed the proportion of nursing shifts filled compared to the level planned for by that hospital – therefore highlighting any gaps in care.

This has been replaced by a measure of “care hours” that does not distinguish between care given by registered nurses and unregistered support workers.

It also does not highlight whether hospitals met their planned level of care.

Former chief nurse Susan Osborne, chairwoman of the Safe Staffing Alliance, told the Health Service Journal (HSJ) that publishing the figure with no comparison of what care had been planned was “a sham and deceives patients and public regarding care needed versus care provided”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “The NHS runs on the dedication and commitment of our wonderful nurses, who work tirelessly to provide the highest quality of care for their patients.

“There are over 16,900 more nurses on our wards since 2010, with 52,000 more in training – and as part of our Long Term Plan we are improving staff retention by promoting flexibility, wellbeing and career development and helping more nurses return to practice.

“As well as providing funding to increase university training places, we will set out a full NHS People Plan later this year to ensure the health service has the staff it needs for the future.”