• NHS Improvement data shows NHS has between 36,000 and 42,000 registered nurse vacancies
  • Health Education England to ask for vacancy data collection to be reinstated

There are at least 36,000 vacancies for registered nurses in the English NHS, according to a new official analysis which has provided the first accurate picture of the issue for several years.

NHS Improvement has told HSJ it has been collecting monthly information from trusts since April 2017 and cross referencing the figures with other centrally held data sets to draw up the most accurate picture of nursing vacancies affecting the NHS. 

The regulator has been asking trusts to provide vacancy data as part of their monthly returns. Officials have compared trusts’ reports to their annual operating plans, actual staff in post, and the financial returns to provide an upper and lower limit of vacancies.

The results show the NHS has at least 36,000 full-time equivalent nursing vacancies but the number could be as high as 42,000.

NHS trusts used to be required to submit vacancy data as part of official statistics but this has not been the case for several years.

Health Education England chief executive Ian Cumming revealed the vacancy figure at a hearing of the Commons health select committee on Tuesday. He told MPs he would be recommending that vacancy data was collected again as an official statistic in HEE’s forthcoming workforce strategy.

He told MPs: “One of the areas we would like to reinstate a data collection around is what the actual number of vacancies are for nurses at the moment. We have data collections that we undertake, we have data collections that colleagues in NHSI undertake, but the formal collection of data relating to vacant posts in the NHS was stopped a number of years ago.

“We are really keen to reinstate that so we have a formal data collection that allows us to know what the actual position is today for vacancies to allow us to better plan for the future.”

The figures relate to month six of this financial year. NHS Improvement intends to formalise the monthly collection and in future publish it in its quarterly performance reports, HSJ understands.

At Tuesday’s health committee hearing Mr Cumming also revealed plans to improve HEE’s funding for continuing professional development, which has been cut from £190m to £84m this year.

He told MPs: “The reason [the CPD] budget has gone down is because of conscious decisions we have made. When we came into being we were being told very clearly that the priority was to grow the number of undergraduate nurses. Some of that money we had historically spent on current workforce we diverted into spending on the undergraduate workforce because we were working in a finite budget.

“We are now looking at how we can prioritise more of our fixed resource into targeting the current workforce, because we believe giving people access to education and training opportunities as well as helping produce the workforce we need is also something that helps motivate them, raise morale and keep them in jobs.”

HEE is also planning to launch an international recruitment campaign to bring in 5,500 nurses from India on an “earn, learn and return” basis to help fill shortfalls at trusts.

4 December: Updated to remove some quotes attributed to NHS Improvement