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The Dangerous Numbers Behind the UK’s Nursing Shortages… As Warned Over the Past 5 Years

We are fighting a war against an invisible enemy, as Boris Johnson so Churchillianly expressed, but what he didn’t mention, is that we don’t have the foot soldiers to fight it. 

Time after time throughout this pandemic, the Great British public has taken to their doorsteps with pots and pans, their TikToks for their dances, their Instagram for their runs and their gardens to complete fund-raisers to show support for our brave NHS workers. Such support is humbling and heartwarming. But, in the week that the Government promises a £60,000 cushion to bereaved families, does it feel a little like a gross oversight into what Tory HQ has done to our sacred NHS over the past decade?

A little over 4 months ago, my Girlfriend was admitted to hospital with border-line sepsis, she had to spend 4 nights in Stoke Royal, one of the largest hospitals in the UK. During her time in hospital, she was told she needed to remain on a drip with essential anti-biotics for the entire duration of her stay. Upon changing wards, she was left off it for 7 hours while only 3 nurses covered 5 wards, approximately 25 beds. The nurses were overwhelmed, unable to keep up and unable to offer the incredible service that Nay Bevan envisioned some 75 years ago. This was before the pandemic, but certainly not the first experience of an utterly underfunded National Health System.

Fast forward to today, a world away from the freedom of January; every evening at 5 o’clock, the Health Secretary or whichever Johnson stand-in can face the media, addresses the nation to deflect questions about the approach to this pandemic. The truth is, the warnings of under-funding have been there for years, we just didn’t listen quite as well until it was completely and totally forced into the forefront of daily conversation over the past 6 weeks. Austerity felt, to some, like an over-politicised campaign term from the left to bring down the Tories, but now we can all see first-hand, a National Health Service on the brink.

In 2017, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) surveyed 30,000 nurses across the UK about job satisfaction and quality of patient care during shifts. The results were, as they put it ‘Shocking’, they showed ‘nursing staff in every setting across the UK in crisis’. The report published on the back of this survey, entitled ‘Nursing Against the Odds’ detailed over 50% of nurses reporting their shift not-staffed to the level planned, over a third were leaving care undone due to lack of time, and two-thirds working un-paid overtime regularly. 

The report was frank, it warned drastically that lives were at risk if untrained support staff were on call, and not registered nurses, who’s overall number on duty in the survey was down 4% on the number in 2009. To further empathize the point, the survey was conducted in May, well outside of the typical winter-boom in hospital admissions. It concluded “Short-sighted cost-saving measures and lack of funding have been demonstrated to be significant factors in the issues described”.

The Nursing Against the odds Survey was conducted 1 year after ‘Exercise Cygnus’; the then-little-known study into how our country would cope with a pandemic; the result showed the countries health service would collapse. The report was kicked into the grass until brought to the public’s attention this year and shows clearly that the government willingly ignored a decisive study about the state of our Health Service.

The RCN pleaded again for funding in 2018, with acting Chief Executive Dame Donna Kinnair

Saying “The answer to the problems [facing nurses] is a comprehensive workforce plan focused on recruitment and retention that links population need to staff numbers.” Kinnairs evaluation still rings true today. In the ten years of conservative power, we’ve seen a 1% increase in nurses, contrasted with a 6.9% increase in population. We now have approximately 7.8 nurses per 1,000 people. For comparison, Germany has 12.85, USA 11.61 and France, 10.46. We have a similar rate to Lithuania and Czech Republic.[1], our GDP is 53 times the size of Lithuania. 

Prior to all of this – In 2016, the government took one of the most drastic decisions in the nursing-shortage saga. They opted to remove the Student bursary to supposedly increase the number of nursing places available. The then-existing NHS Bursary scheme limited the number of student nurses to 20,000, which couldn’t be increased because of the government policy of austerity, thus, as Tories do best, they lumped the burden of student fees onto the student, in theory increasing the available intake. The following year, applications to nursing related subjects was down 23%[2]. The overall intake now is 8% down on the 2016 number.

In the December 2019 election, Labour reported we’d lost 200,000 nurses in the decade of tory Austerity. As is uniform with all party ‘facts’ this must be taken with a pinch of salt, (figures include deaths and retirements) but it does bare some truths. It highlights that not only are we not attracting new nurses, but the nurses we’ve got are quitting in record numbers. 97,000 nurses left their positions voluntarily in the time period given, citing things such as poor-work life balance (up 163% to 18,013 in 2018) and health reasons (up 99% to 4,234 in 2018). In 2018 alone, 27% more nurses quit the NHS than in 2010. The bottom line – more nurses were and are leaving the NHS than joining it. 

Since 2010, the Conservative government has strangled spending in the NHS, resulting in a reduction in nursing numbers, student nurses, quality of care and quality of life for the nurses themselves. Over the past 5 years, The Royal College of Nursing has pleaded with the government to pour resources into the NHS to stop a potentially catastrophic long-term issues, those calls fell on deaf ears. Today, we face the largest health crisis in a generation, one in which we are woefully underprepared for.  


[1] https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/the-nhs-workforce-in-numbers#7-how-do-we-compare-to-other-countries

[2] https://www.health.org.uk/blogs/general-election-2017-why-were-nurse-bursaries-removed

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