Urgent action is needed to tackle severe staff shortages in Britain’s National Health Service, including a big expansion in nurse training and deploying other staff to make up for a chronic shortage of GPs, according to three think-tanks.
The Nuffield Trust, The King’s Fund and the Health Foundation suggested offering cost-of-living grants of £5,200 a year to nursing students; tripling the number training to be nurses as postgraduates; and increasing overseas nursing recruitment.
The shortfall in the number of family doctors is so serious that it cannot be filled, the report concluded. The only way forward would be to use the skills of other staff, including pharmacists and physiotherapists, “much more widely and routinely in and alongside general practice”, the researchers said.
Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said the workforce was “the make or break issue for the health service and unless staffing shortages are substantially reduced the recent NHS long-term plan can only be a wish list”.
The government should legislate immediately to create “a regulated profession of physician associates, so that these skilled staff can take on more tasks and reduce the pressure on doctors across England”, the report argued.
Projections in the report show that without the kind of actions it proposed, nurse shortages would double to 70,000 and GP shortages in England almost triple to 7,000 by 2023/24.
The authors argued that, to keep services functioning, an additional 5,000 nurses a year must be “ethically recruited” from abroad. This, they said, means the government would need to make “wide exceptions” to new salary restrictions in the immigration white paper and fund the visa costs incurred by NHS trusts.
The think-tanks’ report, Closing the gap, comes as the NHS is striving to produce a workforce plan to tackle shortages that, if left unaddressed may threaten its capacity to deliver the blueprint for its future published in January.
The researchers said a £900m increase in the annual budget for training and developing healthcare workers in England by 2023/24 would be needed if their proposals were to be fully implemented.
The authors also warned that the government would have to “go back to the drawing board” to come up with a special new route into the UK for care workers as the proposed post-Brexit migration system is “not appropriate”.
Highlighting the much-touted increase in spending on the NHS, announced by Theresa May, the prime minister, last June, Richard Murray, chief executive of the King’s Fund, said that without radical action to expand the NHS workforce, there was “a very real risk that some of the extra funding pledged by the government will go unspent, waiting lists will continue to grow and important improvements to services like mental health and general practice will fail”.
Candace Imison, director of workforce strategy at the Nuffield Trust, said the forthcoming workforce plan “needs to mark the moment we stop treating the staffing of health and social care as a second order issue”.