The numbers of nursing staff employed in NHS hospitals has dipped for the second month in a row for the first time since the start of the “Francis effect” on nurse recruitment.

Latest data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show the number of full-time equivalent qualified nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff employed in an acute setting fell by 494 posts from June to July to 174,545 posts.

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The RCN is concerned that the Francis effect of recruiting more nurses ‘may be stalling’

This is down from its peak in May of 175,235, the highest for any month since September 2009 and 6,324 more than in May 2010 when the coalition government came to power.

The surge in nurse recruitment began after the Francis report.

New guidelines on safe staffing by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence were published in July.

The two month fall also reflects an annual trend of reductions in numbers of nurses in June, July and August as staff retire and leave the profession before new graduates qualify and start work in September.

With many trusts expected to increase the number of nurses they employ, it is possible another spike in recruitment could occur when data for September is published by the information centre in December.

The figures also show that the total number of qualified nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff has fallen for four consecutive months from a peak in March of 314,802 down to 312,873 in July.

This is still one of the highest levels ever seen since monthly records began in September 2009 and 2,080 more staff than at the time of the last election in May 2010.

Professor James Buchan from the School of Health at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University told HSJ’s sister title Nursing Times: “It’s too early to say for certain, but it may be that the post Francis staffing growth has peaked, reflecting tightening budgets.”

Royal College of Nursing policy adviser Stuart Abrahams said the RCN was “concerned that the Francis effect may be stalling”.

“We want to see improvements in recruitment and to ensure that there are the right and safe number of staffing on wards to ensure safe patient care.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “There is always a dip in numbers of nurses in the summer because of the way the training cycle works, but then numbers normally increase again in September.

“There are 6,000 more nurses, midwives and health visitors than this time last year.”