The Health Secretary has committed to training thousands more nurses and nursing associates through new apprenticeship scheme, bypassing the traditional university degree.
In his speech to the conservative party conference yesterday, Hunt promised an increase in the number of nursing associates from the current 2000 to 7,500 by 2019, through a two-year training course. Nursing associates are staff that work alongside and support qualified nurses. If, after the two years, these associates wish to become fully qualified nurses, then they are able to enrol on a further two year nursing apprenticeship that would provide them with the qualification. It Is hoped that this would result in thousands of extra nurses by 2020.
“So today I can tell you we’ll increase the number of nurses we train by 25% – that’s a permanent increase of more than 5,000 nurse training places every single year. And we’ll do that not just by increasing traditional university places, but also by tripling the number of Nursing Associates so people already in the NHS can become a registered nurse after a four year apprenticeship without having to do a traditional full time university course,” said Hunt.
The overall aim of the Health Secretary’s new plan is to establish a route for training nurses that does not require the traditional university degree and subsequent student loans due to tuition fees. The government has recently scrapped nursing bursaries, meaning that the cost of university education is being passed on to would-be students, resulting in 19% fewer applications for nursing places at universities this year.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said: ‘Significant increases to training numbers is welcome - we desperately need more nurses. However, they must be educated to the highest standards. We are concerned at the risk of students plugging the gaps in the current workforce at the expense of quality patient care and their own learning experience’.
The plans have also been criticised by the RCN as being ‘too hospital focused’ and failing to recognise the need for flexible community nursing to offset the pressures faced by hospitals and other health services. Hunt, and others in the Department of Health, will need to convince nurses that these changes will result in more staff without cutting corners when it comes to quality of training and care.
A lack of adequate staffing is one of the greatest pressures currently facing then NHS, with 11,500 more vacancies advertised for nurses and midwives in the first part of this year, a 17% rise on the same time last year according to NHS Digital.
The Royal College of Midwives said: ‘Midwives are leaving the profession because of workloads and staff shortages, and Mr Hunt needs to show his commitment to mothers, babies and staff by giving England’s hard-pressed maternity services the midwives it needs to provide safe, high quality care.’
Only time will tell whether the proposed system will increase nursing numbers and the quality of care provided, with unions and NHS staff carefully scrutinising the new proposals in the hope that they will go some of the way in increasing staff numbers.