• HEE has warned learning disability workforce headcount will “hit critical levels”
  • Vacancies predicted to double in five years
  • Learning disability charity Mencap warns projected reduction could be “catastrophic”

Health Education England has warned the learning disability nursing headcount could “hit critical levels in the next five years”, with vacancies “upwards of 30 per cent”. 

According to the education and training provider’s most recent board papers, the number of students joining the learning disability workforce is falling behind demand. It added students may be “financially risk averse” and “may have commitments that mean the prospect of taking loans to fund training is prohibitive”.

The papers said: “We estimated that the 16 per cent vacancies in learning disabilities nurse posts in 2018 will become upwards of 30 per cent. Without immediate interventions this will compromise both the quality of care and the successful implementation of the long-term plan and its associated workstreams…

“This [the lack of students entering the workforce] is a critical issue particularly for this branch of nursing who have seen recruitment figures drop by over 46 per cent since 2014.”

HEE also said employers have reported costs related to commissioning, students’ study time and supernumeracy time not covered by the apprenticeship levy mean they cannot afford to establish apprenticeship routes. 

Dan Scorer, head of policy and public affairs for charity Mencap, said the forecast should be “a wake-up call” for the NHS and the government.

Mr Scorer added: “This is already a dire situation and this projected reduction could be catastrophic…

With the National Learning Disability Mortality Review [LeDeR] annual report showing that people with a learning disability die significantly earlier than the general population, it is vital that we have the right number of nurses trained to provide high quality care to address healthcare inequalities so that people with a learning disability stop dying avoidable deaths.”

HEE’s chief nurse Lisa Bayliss-Pratt said HEE “values learning disabilities nurses and knows they play a vital role in supporting people’s needs”.

She said: “We are working with NHS England, NHS Improvement and partners to look at the issues affecting this key workforce in the long-term plan…

“Last year HEE introduced support for trusts returning learning disability nurses to practice after career breaks or time away.”

Professor Bayliss-Pratt added: “We have also been working with service providers to introduce trainee nursing associates into learning disability services, a proportion of whom may wish to continue with a shortened nursing apprenticeship after their training.”

It was announced last year that learning disabilities and autism would be among the clinical priorities for the long-term plan. When published, the plan contained commitments to increase access to support for children and young people with autism and also develop new models of care to treat patients closer to home.