Funding shortfalls and cutbacks mean NHS staffing levels will likely remain static at best over the next five years, experts have said.

Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference on Thursday, chief executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch foundation trust Tony Spotswood said the scale of the savings people were talking about implied a 15 per cent reduction in staff. “That’s about 150,000 to 180,000 staff across the NHS,” Mr Spotswood said.

Westminster primary care trust chief executive Michael Scott similarly warned that workforce planners needed to catch up with the reality of the funding situation. Instead of planning simply to employ more people, they needed to get people working. But he concluded: “Less money means fewer staff.”

But director of consultancy Tribal Matthew Swindells - previously adviser to former health secretary Patricia Hewitt - said that need not necessarily be the case. Redundancies could be avoided if the NHS thought carefully about redeploying people in different roles and in different locations, he said.

He said it was possible to “just do the maths”. If zero real terms funding growth was matched with zero real terms growth in pay then staffing levels could stay the same, “but the biggest change will be in what staff do and where they are between working in hospitals and working in places like call centres,” he said.

But he warned work patterns and plans needed to change “from now” rather than in a panicked way in a year’s time. He acknowledged that would require training for some and told HSJ: “People can create a redundancy situation for the NHS if they refuse to do things in different ways.”

NHS Direct chief operating officer Paula Higgins said her service could add a “lot of value” to the NHS by preventing unnecessary hospital attendances by providing patients with advice on the phone. She said far from looking to lay off staff, she struggled to find enough nurses to meet NHS Direct’s demand.

She argued that moving people from hospital based jobs to call centres need not result in people being moved into unsuitable jobs merely to avoid large redundancy bills. “We’ve got to make sure we equip people with the right skills. Investment in development will be crucial. That’s where we should focus our efforts,” she said.

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