More than 30,000 NHS jobs are at risk of being cut, the Royal College of Nursing has said.
Since the coalition came to power in May 2010, the NHS workforce in England has decreased by 28,500 posts, and a further 32,700 jobs are at risk, the RCN said.
Between May 2010 and July this year, the number of qualified nurses working for the health service reduced by more than 6,000.
The RCN warned that the NHS is “sleepwalking into a crisis”, saying that reduction of staff comes as there is a soaring demand for care.
The ageing population and the increasing number of people living with long-term conditions mean that demand for services continues to rise.
“The RCN believes that the NHS is sleepwalking into a nursing crisis in England that is drawing closer as the size of the cuts increase,” a report for the organisation’s Frontline First campaign said.
“If the government continues on its current path it will find itself stranded in a perfect storm of an ageing population with increasing healthcare demands, but without the adequate nursing workforce to deal with it.”
While trusts locally make the decisions about staffing levels, the RCN said there was a lack of national oversight about the reduction in staff numbers.
The organisation is calling on ministers to prevent NHS trusts from “continuing with this damaging agenda of cuts” that “impact on patient care”.
“The cumulative effect of those local decisions means that we are heading towards a crisis as far as the supply of nursing is concerned which will have an impact on patient care,” said RCN’s head of policy Howard Catton.
“There has to be national oversight to make sure that we are getting the right numbers of healthcare professionals across the system.
“Getting the nursing numbers right is fundamental, it’s core.”
Health minister Dan Poulter said: “NHS performance is strong - waiting times and infection rates are at record low levels. To say that the NHS is in crisis is scaremongering and doesn’t reflect reality.
“The NHS workforce is changing and the NHS workforce of tomorrow will be different to what it is today. But changes must be decided at a local level, based on evidence that they will improve patient care.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “Whilst the coalition wastes billions on back-office restructuring, the front-line of the NHS is taking a battering.
“Since David Cameron walked through the door of 10 Downing Street, over six thousand nursing posts have been lost.
“At the same time, he has spent £1bn on redundancy packages for managers, six-figure pay-outs to managers and P45s to nurses - what clearer illustration could there be of a government with its priorities completely wrong.”