• New data from NHS Digital shows 29,000 full-time equivalent job adverts for nurses in first three months of 2016
  • More than 9,000 registered nurse and midwife roles were advertised each month on the NHS Jobs website
  • Year on year there were 3,300 more FTE nursing staff working in the NHS in May, data reveals

There were at least 29,000 jobs advertised for registered nurses and midwives in the NHS during the first three months of 2016, new data shows.

The number of vacancies being advertised gives an indication of the demand for nursing staff across England and follows record levels of substantive nurse recruitment since the publication of the Francis report in 2013.

Meanwhile, the latest workforce data, published by NHS Digital, shows full-time equivalent nursing staff employed in the NHS at its highest ever level for the month of May (see below).

The data, newly published by NHS Digital, shows there were 29,251 adverts for FTE nurses and midwives on the NHS Jobs website between 1 January and 31 March this year. Month by month, there were between 9,000 and 10,000 adverts for registered nurses and midwives in this period.

For comparison, the total current nursing, midwifery and health visitor workforce is currently around 300,000 – although the job advert data does not cover health visiting.

NHS Digital has said the data should be treated with caution, and that the true number of vacancies was likely to be higher.

The next largest group for vacancies across the first three months of the year was administrative and clerical staff with 17,510 adverts. This was followed by 9,369 adverts for medical and dental staff.

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said the level of vacancies was “really worrying” but she warned against viewing the workforce simply in terms of headcount.

She said the number of nurses per bed day and per finished consultant episode fell in 2011-12. “That fall proved to be unsustainable because alongside rising activity we are seeing increased acuity,” she added.

“So I don’t think we have unprecedented nursing levels when you consider the volume and complexity of healthcare we are delivering. If you reduce average length of stay the period in hospital is much more intensive, so you would expect nursing input to rise and actually that would be a system efficiency, because having patients lying around in beds when they don’t need care reduces the amount of nursing input but isn’t very efficient.”

She added that the NHS “undoubtedly” needed more permanent staff because of both the direct and indirect costs of agency staff.

“We need a much more sophisticated understanding of nursing input. Staffing is our biggest cost and our biggest asset and providers need to have proper data on how they use the workforce,” Ms Charlesworth said.

Monthly data on the total number of adverts across England since April 2015 shows the number of adverts each month peaked at 29,602 in July 2015 – but overall has remained roughly stable since the data collection began in February 2015.

The figures do not include vacancy data for GPs or practice staff.

NHS Digital said of its vacancy data: “The only accurate statement remains that the number of advertised vacancy full-time equivalents shows the minimum number of vacancies advertised. Because of the differences in practice between different organisations and across different staff groups it is not possible to state the precise level of undercounting, but it is possible to say that it will vary for different staff groups.

“For example the undercount for nurses is likely to be greater than for other staff because of the high level of rolling adverts used for that group, and also the advertising of vacancies directly to audiences overseas which will not be undertaken through NHS Jobs.”

Meanwhile, the most recent official NHS workforce data, covering the month of May, shows full-time equivalent nursing staff at its highest ever level. It continues a trend which began following the publication of the Francis report in 2013, which has seen sustained year-on-year increases in nurse staffing.

In May 2016 there were 284,652 full-time equivalent nurses and health visitors working in the NHS, which was 3,300 more than in the same month in 2015.

Lara Carmona, associate director of policy at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “While there are signs of growth in overall workforce numbers, demand from patients is rising faster and this is reflected in these vacancy figures. We also know that this overall workforce number masks a reduction in the numbers of many nursing specialities.

“The health service is desperately trying to play catch up thanks to a lack of a comprehensive workforce strategy and pressure for finance driven cuts. We’re hearing that trusts want to provide safe staffing but too often there are simply not enough nurses to recruit.

“The government, Health Education England and health service providers need a long term, sustainable workforce strategy, which includes enough nurses to ensure patient safety and provide quality care and support.”