Nursing shortages are likely to get worse and could put patient safety at risk unless the government acts to tackle recruitment and retention problems, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.

A “perfect storm” of problems face the profession including rising demand, an increasing number of nurses approaching retirement, insufficient trainees and potential threats to international recruitment following the decison for the UK to leave the EU, the RCN said.

Janet Davies

Janet Davies 25 June 2015 roundtable

Janet Davies said the government has made nursing a ‘less appealing’ career

The union also said the government’s decision to remove nursing student bursaries could deter people from applying to become a nurse and lead to an uneven distribution of trainees across regions and specialties.

There are already “mixed fortunes” in staffing levels for different nurse specialisms, according to the RCN’s analysis of NHS data.

It found especially “sizeable falls” in learning disability and community nurse numbers. NHS Digital data shows despite a 1.6 per cent increase in the overall size of the nurse workforce in England, the number of learning disability nurses reduced by 23 per cent, from 4,667 in 2011 to 3,577 in 2015.

The size of the community nursing workforce also dropped by 11 per cent over the same time period, from 40,281 to 35,726. The mental health nursing workforce declined by around 8 per cent from 39,024 to 35,671.

The analysis, prepared for an RCN report on the UK nursing workforce and its annual submission to the NHS pay review bod, also warned about the ageing workforce.

In England half of the nursing workforce is aged 45 or over – compared with around a third 10 years ago – and within a decade of being able to take early retirement, according to the RCN report.

It urged the government to tackle the problems by improving recruitment and retention strategies, including providing NHS wage increases of above the 1 per cent cap.

A survey carried out as part of report found 3 per cent of NHS nurses were actively looking for another job, with the most commonly cited reason being that they were unhappy about their pay. The RCN pointed to data from the Office for National Statistics that showed nurses’ weekly earnings had dropped by 14 per cent since 2011, taking account of inflation.

Employers were failing to use local retention and recruitment premiums to hold on to staff, which could stop them moving to agency work, said the RCN.

In the absence of using premiums, recent cases of trusts offering staff higher rates of pay in exchange for sacrificing pension contributions were likely to be copied by other NHS organisations.

RCN chief executive Janet Davies said: “The trends indicated in this report add up to a perfect storm of risks to the future supply of nursing staff. Many of these risks could have been avoided, and now immediate action is required.

“The government has largely ignored the crisis facing the nursing workforce. Its only action so far has been to change the way nurse training is funded, introducing loans which mean that future nurses will be expected to take on debts with little prospect of fair pay when they graduate…

“By making nursing like any other degree, even though a nurse’s salary is £8,000 less than the median graduate salary, the government has made it less appealing and created more uncertainty.

“Patient safety will be at risk without immediate action to secure the future supply of nurses… This crisis requires a coordinated, long term strategy to train more nurses and an above inflation increase in pay to help our current staff make ends meet.”