'Not enough nurses' in the NHS as country faces worsening coronavirus outbreak

5 March 2020, 14:32

The warning came from a report by the National Audit Office
The warning came from a report by the National Audit Office. Picture: PA
Rachael Kennedy

By Rachael Kennedy

There are not enough nurses in the NHS to cover demand, a new report has found, as the UK faces a worsening situation amid coronavirus.

The report from the National Audit Office (NAO) said the health service "does not have the nurses it needs" to handle the "critical" running of operations.

It comes as health officials have warned that an epidemic in the UK as a result of COVID-19 is now "likely".

Between July and September 2019, there were more than 43,000 nursing vacancies - equivalent to 12% of the workforce - reported by NHS Trusts, despite efforts to close this gap.

It surpassed the overall staff vacancy rate, which sat at 9% during the same period.

The report, which was released earlier this week, came as the UK revealed its action plan in the "likely" event of a coronavirus epidemic.

On Thursday, the UK's chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the response to the spread of the virus had moved into the second phase as possible containment of the illness was now "pretty optimistic".

He said the response had therefore moved to the "delay" phase, which will seek to push back the date when cases are expected to peak in the UK.

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Speaking about the nursing report, Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said the spread of the flu-like illness has made the importance of nurses "ever more apparent".

She added: "There are 44,000 nursing vacancies. Plans to increase the numbers of nurses starting degrees have failed to meet expectations.

"It takes three to four years for policies to train new nurses to have an impact."

The expected roll-out of the NHS People Plan "must be fully funded and finally start to tackle the real reasons why there are not enough nurses," she said.

Meanwhile, Susan Masters, the Royal College of Nursing's director of nursing, policy and practice, looked ahead to next week's Budget as a "perfect opportunity" to respond to such issues.

She said: "We are calling for investment to remove financial barriers for nursing students, by paying for tuition fees and providing grants for the real costs of living.

"Until there's a law clarifying who is responsible and accountable for workforce in government and throughout the health and care system, patient safety remains at risk."

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An NHS spokesman pointed to an increase in nurses from last year, but said an increase to 50,000 would be "crucial" when "meeting the growing need for care".

The Department of Health and Social Care also responded to the report by pointing toward the "record number of nurses in the NHS".

It also reaffirmed the pledge to reach 50,000 nurses in five years, and said: "We're taking immediate action to reduce vacancies including funding for 5,000 more student training placements a year and supporting greater international recruitment.

"From September, we're also giving nursing students at least £5,000 a year to help secure the staff we need for the future."