Health secretary Jeremy Hunt today intervened in the debate over safe staffing levels in the NHS, announcing future guidelines will be independently reviewed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

In a marked change to current policy, Mr Hunt said work on safe staffing levels currently led by NHS England’s chief nursing officer Jane Cummings will now be taken forward by the new regulator, NHS Improvement, overseen by national patient safety director Mike Durkin.

Dr Durkin would work with Ms Cummings and NHS England.

Jeremy Hunt 2014

Jeremy Hunt set out his ‘25 year vision’ for the NHS in a speech today

Mr Hunt revealed NICE would be asked to independently assess the work, which will then also be reviewed separately by chief inspector of hospitals Sir Mike Richards and Sir Robert Francis QC.

Speaking to HSJ immediately after his speech in London this morning Mr Hunt said he hoped the change in approach would give “reassurance” to those concerned by NHS England’s decision to take over the work.

Mr Hunt added that he expected “NICE alongside the chief inspector of hospitals and Robert Francis will be approving the advice that is developed by Dr Mike Durkin. That I think will be a really important check”.

His intervention today follows weeks of criticism of NHS England, whose chief executive Simon Stevens last month asked NICE to suspend its work developing safe staffing guidance for the NHS. The work was a recommendation made by Sir Robert following his public inquiry into failures at Stafford Hospital.

Despite being asked to stop its work, NICE revealed last week that it planned to make public its completed guidance on A&E staffing levels and would also publish four separate evidence reviews of nurse staffing levels in different care settings.

NHS regulators, including the Care Quality Commission, have indicated they expect trusts to consider the evidence NICE is due to publish at the end of this month.

Speaking at the King’s Fund this morning, Mr Hunt said “There can be no compromise on the issue of safe staffing and we need a methodology that properly assesses and publishes what appropriate levels of staffing should be, taking full account of the changes that can be made with new technology and modern multidisciplinary work practices.”

He added: “Because safety and quality will be at the heart of the new organisation’s remit, Dr Mike Durkin’s safety function will move there with two early priorities. Firstly, to work with the chief nursing officer to complete the work started by NICE on safe staffing levels.

“This will be independently reviewed by NICE, the chief inspector of hospitals, and Sir Robert Francis to ensure it meets the high standards of care the NHS aspires to.”

Dr Durkin will also establish a new Independent Patient Safety Investigation Service within the new regulator.

Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing said: “The health secretary is right - when it comes to safe staffing, there can be no compromise and it’s reassuring that there is a role for NICE, the CQC and Sir Robert Francis.

“However, there is still a lot of detail missing such as the exact nature of NICE’s role, where responsibility will lie and how it will be resourced. There is also a need for assurance that this guidance will be followed.

“The NHS can afford no further delays to this work.”