NHS cuts: how many nurse jobs have really been lost?

The coalition’s £20 billion NHS economy drive is decimating the nursing profession or having little effect, depending on who you listen to. Whichever figures are correct, the reality looks like more nurses are needed rather than fewer…

Of all the job sectors across the UK, nursing has been the one in the spotlight over the past few months, due to growing anger over the effects the NHS cuts might have on the profession.

At its annual congress, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) unveiled research indicating more than 60,000 frontline nursing-related posts have either been lost or earmarked for cuts in the past two years. The compelling evidence, which was based on a variety of official sources, delivered a staggering 61,113 job losses since the 2010 general election. With nursing-related jobs totalling around 600,000 in the UK, that’s a decrease of around 10%.

The RCN (Royal College Of Nursing) general secretary, Dr Peter Carter, described the NHS as being under attack and predicted more major reforms would be needed to clear up the confusion left behind by the controversial NHS and Social Care Act. He also likened the recent tales of patients being cared for in corridors to the NHS of the 1990s.

What the government said…

Although he rejected the RCN figures, health secretary Andrew Lansley did admit that 3,000 nursing posts had been lost since 2010, but said there were 4,000 more doctors. But this was contrasted by junior health minister Simon Burns, who insisted only 450 jobs had been lost, suggesting confusion in the government ranks and giving more credence to the RCN statistics.

Probably furrowing David Cameron’s brow further were Carter’s comments that alluded to the political power job sectors like nursing can wield come election time. Stressing the need for the Government to keep the nursing profession onside, Carter highlighted the fact there is an average of 1,800 nurses and healthcare assistants in each UK constituency. This powerful statistic must have felt like a blow for the Prime Minister, who is sure to have realised exactly what it meant – that right across the country, nurses could pack a big enough political punch to swing constituencies towards Labour and potentially kick the coalition out of office.

But the RCN are far more concerned about the future of their profession, and how continuing job losses will impact on the NHS and, more importantly, patient care. Despite Lansley’s assurances over job losses and his claims that NHS trusts rather than the Government were to blame for them, the feeling in wards and hospitals across the UK seems to be one of disbelief in the health secretary’s statement.

In fact, during Lansley’s speech, a succession of congress delegates – all in the nursing profession themselves – intervened with their own observations that his comments on staffing levels didn’t match their experience of what was happening on the ground.

Looking at the figures

Lansley’s assertions are based on Department of Health figures that state the total number of professionally qualified clinical staff in the NHS in England had risen by 3,600 (0.6%) in the two years between January 2010 and January 2012.

However, the department admitted the total number of full-time equivalent qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors in England had fallen by 2,595 (0.8%).

Furthermore, it conceded  the total number of qualified nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff had also decreased by 3,677 (1.0%) between May 2010 and January 2012.

Despite being told that the Government does not recognise its figures, the RCN has regularly insisted that its statistics had been strictly certified and were based on official NHS information.

The organisation’s UK-wide RCN survey also revealed that nine out of 10 NHS community nurses (89%) had seen their caseload rise over the last year, while 59% said they were spending less time with their patients than in 2011. Meanwhile, some 68% said staffing levels had fallen where they worked, and 86% reported that patients were being discharged from hospital more quickly than before.

The RCN also believes the impact of job losses will be compounded by proposed cuts to nurse training. Back in February, a Nursing Standard investigation found that NHS North West intends to reduce nurse training places by 16% by 2014/15 and NHS South East Coast plans to cut nursing and midwifery training commissions by more than 6% next academic year.

Wherever the truth lies, research by Bliss, the charity for sick and premature babies, suggests the NHS needs more rather than fewer nurses, supporting the RCN’s stance. Bliss said recently that neonatal units are so understaffed they need 1,150 extra nurses to meet minimum targets. However, it insisted that 140 posts have actually been cut in the past six months and 32 units are set to axe nurses this year.

Commenting on the situation, Bliss chief Andy Cole sent a strong message out to government ministers, saying: “Our sickest babies are at risk because of needless cuts. The Government must take responsibility now and ensure they receive the highest standard of care at this critical time in their lives.”

Meanwhile, the RCN is concerned that constant reports about NHS cuts will deter people from following a career in nursing and is keen to emphasize that the profession remains not only one of the most important, but also one of the rewarding of jobs.

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