Lack of nurses leads NHS to rely on less qualified staff

Nurses are in such short supply in the UK that the NHS is relying on less qualified staff to plug the gaps, according to a new report.

According to the Health Foundation charity, healthcare assistants and nursing assistants have been used to help with tasks that qualified nurses would normally carry out if there were enough of them.

Numbers have been shored up for years by overseas recruitment – but Brexit has caused a drop in the number of those coming from the EU, the report says, so the health service is now taking more nurses from countries further afield, including India and the Philippines.

This, in turn, means an ongoing shift in the mix of clinical staff and the type of skills they have, the report says.

And the charity said a government target to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020 is "impossible" to meet.


As the main political parties put the NHS at the centre of their general election campaigning, including promising more staff, the Health Foundation says:

  • Number of nursing vacancies across the NHS is 44,000 (12% of the nursing workforce)
  • Number of vacancies could reach 100,000 in a decade
  • Doctor numbers grew by 2.5% over 2018/2019
  • Full time nurse numbers grew by 1.5% over 2018/2019
  • Biggest increase in staff in past year was among managers (6.2%) and senior managers (5.7%)
  • Number of full-time GPs fell 1.6% between March 2018 and March 2019
  • Temporary staff and trainee GPs make up greater proportion of GP workforce then ever before
  • Number of pharmacists delivering primary care increased by more than 40%

The Tories have promised:

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  • 50,000 more nurses
  • 18,500 of these are retained from existing nurses
  • 12,500 to come from overseas
  • 5,000 will come from apprenticeships
  • 14,000 will come through training

Labour has promised:

  • 24,000 more nurses
  • more spending overall than the Tories on NHS

The Liberal Democrats have promised:

  • To raise £7bn extra per year for the NHS and social care by putting 1p on income tax
  • To target extra help for nursing students, starting with bursaries for those specialist roles where shortages are most acute

The Health Foundation report said: "In 2009/10 there were equal numbers of nurses and support staff, with one clinical support staff member for every full-time equivalent nurse in the NHS.

"By 2018/19, the number of support staff per full-time equivalent nurse had risen 10% to 1.1 full-time equivalent per nurse."

And it said that between March 2018 and March 2019, the NHS saw the biggest annual increase this decade in its overall workforce.

But it also added that while the changes have so far been implemented well, it is "important that quality and safety are at the forefront of any skill mix change".

Image: Political parties are making various promises on the NHS during the election campaign

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said: "Nursing shortages continue to deepen and are inevitably impacting on the frontline.

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