Shortages of staff are widespread within the NHS and exist across all disciplines. The NHS has too few nurses, midwives, GPs, hospital doctors and mental health workers. Staff are leaving the service due to low pay, work-related stress and reduced job satisfaction, whilst recruitment and retention continues to be a growing problem.
Recent evidence for staff shortages
In July 2022, the health and select committee within Parliament confirmed what everyone working in the NHS has known for several years, the NHS has a major staffing crisis.
The committee heard that almost every healthcare profession is facing shortages, with at least 105,000 vacancies. The situation is worse in social care, where according to a Skills for Care report, one in three care workers left their job in 2020–21, making continuity of care extremely difficult. In December 2021, Care England reported that 95% of care providers were struggling to recruit staff, and 75% were struggling to retain their existing staff.
What is the government doing?
In July 2022, the Parliamentary committee noted that the Government has shown “a marked reluctance to act decisively.” The workforce plan promised in the Spring had not yet been published and when it does appear will only be a ‘framework’ with no numbers.
Pressure from organisations within the NHS for a funded workforce plan increased, most recently in November 2022, a coalition of over 100 health and care organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), signed a letter to the Chancellor in support of publishing the NHS long-term workforce plan in full, including assessments of how many staff will be needed to keep pace with demand.
Under such pressure, in November 2022, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, made a pledge for an independently-verified workforce plan.
“the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS will publish an independently-verified plan for the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals we will need in five, 10 and 15 years’ time, taking full account of the need for better retention and productivity improvements.”
Although the announcement was welcomed by commentators and NHS England, pledges, reviews and unfunded strategies have been seen and heard over the last four years, the cash for implementation remains the missing element.
As The Health Foundation noted:
“The Chancellor’s commitment to publish long term workforce projections is very welcome but doesn’t yet come with any additional funding or plan to expand the workforce.”
Commenting on the plan announcement, the RCP noted:
“It is vital that the workforce plan, when it is published next year, comes with a clear commitment to provide the funding necessary to make this happen.”
Not only has the government not produced a workforce plan, they voted against an amendment to the recent Health & Social Care Bill that would have required the government to publish independently verified forecasts of the workforce numbers needed across the NHS to ensure that services are safely staffed.
To protect the patients the NHS must have the right number and mix of staff, with the right level of education, qualification and experience. Numerous studies show that low nurse staffing levels were associated with higher rates of falls and deaths. These include The Keogh review, the Berwick review, and most recently the Ockenden review of midwifery.
The parliamentary committee’s report noted:
“The persistent understaffing of the NHS now poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety both for routine and emergency care. It also costs more as patients present later with more serious illness.”
Latest vacancy data
The latest NHS Digital vacancy statistics show 132,139 vacancies across England at 30 June 2022. For the Registered Nursing staff group alone there was a vacancy rate of 11.8% or 46,828 vacancies. This is an increase from March 2022 when the vacancy rate was 10.3% (38,814 vacancies).
Why is there a shortage of staff?
There are a number of factors behind this shortage of staff:
- lack of long-term planning by the government, which means not enough staff being trained over the past decade or more;
- removal of the nursing and other bursaries (now partially reversed);
- low pay and for some staff a pay cut;
- brexit leading to a loss of staff from the EU and a reduction in staff coming from EU countries;
- job pressure and high workload made worse due to a lack of staff meaning working conditions for many are untenable and staff leave.
Things were difficult prior to the pandemic, but the Covid pandemic and now the cost of living crisis has escalated the pressure on staff and consequently the difficulty of retaining staff.
Recent research published in Nursing Notes found that 16% of health and social care workers are looking to totally leave the industry, while nearly half (43%) are actively looking for a new job. The study also found that almost a third of healthcare workers (28%) admit to feeling overwhelmed at least once a week, with 17% feeling burnt out every day. Half of the health and social care workers surveyed cited not having enough staff as the biggest pressure they face, followed by low pay (39%) and high workload (35%). A staggering 97% believe the cost-of-living crisis has caused further stress or burnout among healthcare professionals.
NHS trusts are now giving their staff hardship grants, low-cost meals and money to buy their children’s school uniforms to help them cope with the deepening cost of living crisis. Others have set up food banks, are subsidising public transport fares and advising hard-up frontline personnel how to access supermarket vouchers to help feed their families.
When nothing is done about staff shortages there is a spiral of events that leads to ever greater pressure on staff. The health and social care committee report noted:
“In August 2021 alone, the NHS lost two million full-time equivalent days to sickness, including more than 560,000 days to anxiety, stress, depression, or another psychiatric illness. The result is that many in an exhausted workforce are considering leaving—and if they do pressure will increase still further on their colleagues.”
Too few nurses
Issues with both recruitment and retention
There is a major issue with nurse recruitment and retention. The overall number of nurses employed has increased, but this doesn't meet the increased demand. NHS Digital statistics reveal there were almost 47,000 nursing vacancies in health and care settings in England in June 2022.
Although this increased demand for nurses was widely predicted, government policy over the past decade has hampered the NHS's ability to cope with it.
Removal of nursing bursary
In 2015, the nursing bursary was removed by the Conservative government, which led to a drop in applications to nursing. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the policy has been very damaging and was a key reason why the number of unfilled vacancies in nursing in the NHS in England rose to 43,000 by 2019.
In 2019 the government under pressure partially reversed the policy and reinstated a maintenance grant, plus those who plan to work in areas with severe shortages of nurses, or in one of the areas of care where the lack of nurses is acute – such as mental health or learning disability care – will receive another £3,000. However, students still have to pay the £9,000 per year tuition fees, and although the RCN welcomed the grants, it wanted a return of full packages of financial support for training nurses, including paying tuition fees for student nurses.
The impact of Brexit
The Brexit vote in 2016 led to a substantial drop in nurses and midwifes coming to the UK from EU countries, down 87% from 6,400 in 2016/17 to 800 in 2017/18.
The impact of the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased the strain on frontline nurses. The RCN is concerned that the extra responsibility and pressure placed on nurses could increase the rate of staff “burnout”. This comes amid successive waves of Covid patients, the annual pressures that accompany the winter and the inevitable struggle to clear the growing backlog of cancelled appointments from 2020.
The accumulative effect of government policies has led to a significant shortfall in the number of nursing staff.
The Health and Social Care committee in parliament was told of one NHS Acute Trust, where a senior nurse said his department is missing 30% of their nursing staff, and as such, they are reliant on agency staff who are paid double or triple what his permanent staff are paid.
Government targets reachable but not sufficient
In its 2019 manifesto the government set a target of recruiting 50,000 additional FTE registered nurses in the NHS HCHS and general practice in England by the end of the current parliament. This implies increasing the number of FTE registered nurses in the NHS from around 301,000 in September 2019 to around 351,000 by March 2024.
Both the Health Foundation and the King’s Fund say that the government appears to be on track to meet the target, largely through continuing substantial increases in international recruitment, on the back of record recent increases in the number of nurses trained in non-European Union (EU)/European Economic Area (EEA) countries newly registering with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). However, this will still mean a shortfall in nurses.
The King’s Fund notes that “current recruitment doesn’t seem to be having any meaningful impact on the true scale of nursing shortages”, and that “hitting the target will not solve the issue of workforce shortages”. “Demand for nurses is increasing more quickly than supply”, and there are particular shortages in Greater London, the Midlands, and the North East and Yorkshire.
See also The Lowdown article on international recruitment and why it's not the answer to the nurse shortage.
Two few midwives
Warnings on midwife numbers issued in 2021
The July 2022 parliamentary committee report notes a serious shortage of midwives and the pressures on maternity services.
A year previous in July 2021, the committee said that NHSE needed an additional 2,000 midwives and 500 obstetricians to operate at a level that the staffing tool Birthrate Plus considered safe. This recommendation was supported by the Ockenden report and accepted by the Government. However, despite this, the NHS in England lost 552 midwives between March 2021 and March 2022.
Ockenden report highlighted staff shortages
The final Ockenden report into the failings in maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust published in March 2022 identified midwifery staffing shortages across the service, resulting in unmanageable workloads, a lack of support for junior midwives and doctors, and delays in the appropriate review and management of care for women and babies.
The report called on the Government to ensure there is sufficient funding to deliver safe staffing levels, to enable staff to deliver safe care. This is something the RCM has been telling successive Health Secretaries for over a decade.
In April 2022, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) noted that due to over a decade of underfunding some NHS trusts and boards have to base midwifery staffing levels on what they can afford, not women and baby’s needs.
The number of midwives continues to fall
England has a chronic shortage of over 2000 midwives and the situation is deteriorating with midwife numbers falling month on month, worsened further by pandemic related staff sickness and absences. Data for April 2022 show the number of midwives has dropped by 600 compared to April 2021 and the fall is accelerating particularly in the north of England. The RCM says these figures are “alarming”.
According to the latest survey by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), 57% are considering leaving their role as a midwife or MSW. Concerns over staffing levels and the ability to deliver safe care are the top reasons midwives are leaving or have considered leaving the profession, with 84% were not happy with staffing levels and 67% not satisfied with the quality of care able to deliver.
Almost all surveyed said that being a midwife or MSW is not valued by the government or ‘said they did not feel valued by the current Government’. The survey shows retention could be a serious issue for maternity services.
The RCM’s General Secretary and Chief Executive, Gill Walton, said;
“Every midwife and maternity support worker goes to work to provide safe, quality care. That so many feel that understaffing means they are unable to do so is deeply worrying. What these numbers suggest is a midwife exodus, which will leave already-struggling services on their knees. Quite rightly, there is a strong focus on improving maternity safety, but there is a risk that the Government is ignoring the essential ingredient to that: having the right staff, in the right place.”
An ever decreasing number of GPs
Promises on GP numbers will not be met
There are widespread problems with both the training and recruitment of new GPs and the retention of current GPs. In 2015 the Government promised 5,000 extra GPs by 2020, then extended to 2021. In 2016 and 2017, the pledge was repeated. In the 2019 general election campaign, Boris Johnson announced a new commitment to increase the number of GPs in England by 6,000 by 2024. However, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, admitted in November 2021 that this pledge was unlikely to be met because so many family doctors were retiring early.
GP numbers continue to fall
In reality, the number of GPs in England has fallen every year since 2015. There were 29,364 full-time-equivalent GPs in post in September 2015, but by September 2020 the number of family doctors had dropped to 27,939, a fall of 1,425. NHS workforce data for June 2022 show the number has fallen still further to 26,859.
A high rate of GPs taking retirement is often cited as the reason behind the falling numbers, but organisations representing GPs, such as the BMA, also say heavy workloads, rising expectations among patients, excess bureaucracy, a lack of other health professionals working alongside them in surgeries, and concern that overwork may lead to them making mistakes are also leading to GPs quitting in order to improve their mental health and work-life balance.
Source: The Nuffield Trust (August 2022)
High number of practice closures
Over recent years, the GP sector has seen high numbers of practice closures. Pulse began investigating the issue in 2013, when just 18 practices shut their doors. Pulse's latest investigation published in August 2022 shows that 474 GP surgeries across England have closed in the past nine years without being replaced, with small practices on lower funding in more deprived areas most likely to be affected. This leaves 1.5 m patients having to find a new GP, many of them will have to travel a number of miles to a new surgery.
“Practices can’t recruit enough GPs, nurses or other professionals to meet the rising levels of need, because in many cases those staff simply don’t exist. There has been a failure of successive governments to adequately plan and invest in the future NHS workforce, a failure that has left GPs and patients to pick up the pieces.”
Regional inequality in GP numbers
In addition to staffing concerns nationally within general practice, there are serious inequalities regionally. Analysis by the Health Foundation in 2020 found that people living in the most-deprived communities are less likely to have a GP appointment, with nurses substituting doctors in some areas. Doctors working in these communities are responsible for an average of 10% more patients than GPs in more affluent areas.
Too few hospital doctors
Short of 12,000 hospital doctors
Recent research by the Nuffield Trust submitted to the Health and Social Care Parliamentary committee suggests that the NHS in England could be short right now of 12,000 hospital doctors.
Previous research by the Nuffield Trust found that two in five consultants and nearly two-thirds of senior trainee doctors said there were daily or weekly gaps in hospital cover in 2019. Gaps in rotas can mean there are not sufficient senior medical staff to ensure quality and safety of training. This can result in junior doctors withdrawing from hospitals, exacerbating staffing issues.
Record number of jobs unfilled
The latest Royal College of Physicians (RCP) census found a record number of physician jobs unfilled; more than half (52%) of advertised consultant physician posts in England and Wales went unfilled in 2021. This was up from 43% before the pandemic and 48% in 2020 and the highest rate since records began in 2008. Of the 52%, nearly three quarters (74%) were unfilled due to a lack of any applicants at all.
England ranks 19th out of 20 OECD EU countries for the number of physicians with 2.7 per 1,000 population. Additionally, in England there remain over 8,000 full-time equivalent job vacancies for doctors.
Emergency medicine continues to be regularly listed on the Government's occupation shortage list. As NHS England entered the pandemic in 2020, the was a 17% shortfall of emergency medicine consultants and a 9% shortfall of respiratory medicine consultants.
BMA says pay is an issue
According to the latest BMA pay review, declines in doctors pay has had a damaging impact on the morale of frontline NHS staff. This has contributed to a workforce crisis in the NHS and has had a detrimental effect on its ability to recruit and retain doctors.
A study by the Institute of Economic Affairs suggests that importing doctors from abroad will be “essential” over the next decade. However, this could be complicated due to Brexit and the predicted increase in competition internationally for doctors.
Mental health services lack staff
Shortages causing a crisis in services
Mental health services are experiencing staff shortages across the board - nurses, therapists and psychiatrists. Despite many commitments to bolster the workforce, the five year forward view and commitments for 2020/21 are highly unlikely to be met.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, demand rose year on year, but in early 2021 The Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that England is now “in the grip of a mental health crisis” as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Between 2009 and 2020 there has been a 12% drop in the number of mental health nursing posts. Both psychiatry clinicians and psychologists are listed on the Migration Advisory Committee’s list of occupations experiencing staff shortages.
Posts going unfilled
The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ 2021 census has revealed that at least 1.5 million people in England are waiting for treatment but a tenth of consultant psychiatrist posts (568 out of 5,317) are not filled. Consultant vacancy rates vary dramatically across England. The North West and Trent (East Midlands) have a vacancy rate of 15% - significantly higher than the national average of 10.68% - followed closely by the West Midlands and South West at 14%.
Official NHS workforce data shows that there are 4,500 full-time consultant psychiatrists for 56.5 million people, one consultant per 12,567. Addictions, eating disorders and child and adolescent psychiatry have the highest vacancy rates, even though the numbers of those needing support from these specialties are overwhelmingly high. The RCP notes that vacant posts mean an unmet need and that work is likely to be reallocated within a medical team, potentially leading to burnout and low morale or gaps in service provision.
A survey published at the beginning of 2020 revealed the shortage of mental health professionals was leaving the service at ‘breaking point’. 52% of respondents said they were too busy to provide the care they would like. 65% said that on their last shift or day worked, there was a shortage of one or more nursing staff.
The total number of mental health nurses in NHS England is down by over 1,800 in real numbers since 2009.
Lack of staff causing health issues for staff
Worryingly, the number of NHS mental health staff who have had to take sick leave because of their own mental health issues has risen by 22% in the five years up to 2017.
Those taking long-term leave of a month or more rose from 7,580 in 2012-13 to 9,285 in 2016-17. This can be related to the fact that more than 40,000 mental health staff are assaulted every year and little action is taken to protect them from this.
Shortage of radiologists
Shortage leads to treatment delays
A UK wide shortage of radiologists is a continuing issue, contributing to treatment delays for patients in cancer care and other medical care.
Data submitted by the Royal College of Radiologists to the Health and Social Care parliamentary committee in 2022, showed that the RCR estimate there is a shortage of 1,939 whole-time equivalent consultant radiologists for the UK – this equates to a 33% shortage. For consultant oncologists, this figure stands at 189 WTE consultants (a 17% shortfall). If current trends in demand and workforce entries and exits continued to 2030, there would be shortages of close to 6,000 consultant radiologists and 700 consultant oncologists.
New community diagnostic hubs take key staff
The government has an ambitious plan to set up over 100 community diagnostic hubs, however these centres will need an extra 3,500 radiographers to carry out diagnostics tests and 2,000 radiologists to interpret the results, as well as 500 advanced practitioners. The drive to recruit the staff needed at the community diagnostic hubs (CDHs) in England risks already-understaffed hospitals losing key staff to work there.
Shortage has been known for some time
Reports in 2020 revealed that the consultant radiologist workforce in England is 35% short-staffed. Scotland (31%), Wales (37%) and Northern Ireland (27%) have similarly high shortages. In order to keep up with demand and safe staffing quotas, NHS England needs at least an extra 1,613 full-time equivalent consultants.
The Royal College of Radiologists have reported that NHS hospitals are increasingly having to pay for staff to do overtime or outsource the analysis of complex scans to private companies to cover the shortfall.
The work of radiologists is a central component to a lot what the NHS does and so these staff shortages can have a substantial impact on the NHS by prolonging waiting times.