• Health and social care secretary says he will consider safe staffing legislation but warned of unintended consequences of legislation
  • Wales has already introduced safe staffing laws and Scotland is considering a bill
  • Evidence repeatedly shows a link between safe levels of nursing and patient safety

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has said he will “look at” the possibility of introducing safe nurse staffing legislation in England.

It is believed to be the first time a minister in England has openly said they are willing to look into the idea of enshrining safe staffing in law, with the government having previously opposed such calls. 

The health and social care secretary’s comments, reported in the Nursing Times, came after Wales became the first country in Europe to implement a law on safe staffing in the NHS earlier this year. A safe staffing bill is also currently being considered in Scotland.

Mr Hancock said he would consider the idea during a question and answer session with members of the Royal College of Nursing last Wednesday during its Tackling Workplace Violence summit.

Research has repeatedly shown a link between safe levels of nursing and patient harm. The Department of Health and Social Care suspended work by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on safe staffing in 2015 and the Labour Party has threatened to try and amend legislation to restart NICE’s work.

During the event, Mr Hancock said he was “very happy to look at proposals” for a law after initially being questioned on the issue by a delegate.

The audience member said: “One of the most significant actions that can be taken, really taken to reduce violence is with an increase of nurse staffing levels.

”And last year Wales implemented a safe staffing law. Scotland are in the process of preparing to legislate now. And will you seek to guarantee nurse staffing levels for England,” they asked Mr Hancock.

In response, Mr Hancock admitted he had not previously considered making safe staffing legally binding but said he was “willing to look at anything” to address nurse shortages.

“I’m very happy to look at proposals around that. The need for safe staffing is vital of course,” the health and social care secretary said.

”You have to make sure that the law works practically, because there’s always day to day issues in some places,” he said. “But I’m very happy to look at the principle and I really believe very strongly in the need to have more nurses.”

Turning to recruitment and new routes into nursing, he added: ”I think that there is no way that the NHS can continue on a sustainable basis without tackling this shortage.

“Whether it’s from people coming through the traditional university route, people coming through new routes, apprenticeships are very small in number but other new routes, and brilliant people coming from abroad, I think that the shortage is clear and well known and it’s something we are now absolutely determined to, to tackle,” he said.

However, Mr Hancock was then challenged by the same audience member, who said: “it is mainly not just around the numbers in recruitment, it’s about the legislation, about the law for safe staffing”.

“Well, yes, as I said, I’ll look at that,” the health and social care secretary said. “It isn’t something that I’ve considered because sometimes the law isn’t the best way to fix the problem. Other times…changing the law takes time. Sometimes you’ve just got to get on and fix the problem.”

He added: “There are some…how shall I put it? Sometimes in the past people have legislated in the NHS [and it] hasn’t had the exact outcome that people might have been expecting or hoping for at the time, if I put it as gently as that.

“I’m always very wary of unintended consequences, but I’m willing to look at anything to try and solve the problem,” he told delegates.

The RCN launched a campaign during its annual congress in May this year calling for safe staffing legislation to be implemented in every country of the UK in response to rising nurse vacancies.

The law would make it mandatory for healthcare providers to have sufficient nurses on shift to ensure patient safety.

Latest data from NHS Improvement shows 41,722 nurse posts were empty in the first quarter of the current financial year, a rise from 35,794 the previous quarter. Vacant positions are usually covered by bank or agency staff.

Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, welcomed the comments from Mr Hancock.

She said: “Nursing staff at the summit were pleased to hear the health secretary’s open approach to solving the staff shortage and his willingness to consider the legislation proposal the RCN will be putting forward in England.

“Matt Hancock is right to make the workforce a top priority for a sustainable NHS,” said Dame Donna.

“We look forward to working more closely with him to consider how legislation, sufficient funding and guidance could achieve safe and effective staffing for high quality patient care,” she added.

Mr Hancock attended the RCN summit last week to launch the government’s new strategy to reduce violence against NHS workers.