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Fixing the nursing workforce crisis will be Labour’s top priority

For the health service to work in the best interests of patients, nurses should be valued and supported as an essential part of the NHS team

Nursing has always been at the heart of the National Health Service – the largest staff group of the NHS workforce and the most diverse as well. For the health service to work in the best interests of patients, nurses should be valued and supported as an essential part of the NHS team.

But in the past eight years of Conservative Government, the nation’s nursing shortage has gone from bad to worse. Years of squeezed wages and cuts to training places have meant that nursing numbers simply haven’t kept pace with demand. Now, NHS Improvement says that there are more than 40,000 nursing vacancies across England. The figure has more than doubled in the past four years.

The truth is that NHS staff have been taken for granted by the Conservative Government. A cap on pay has seen wages fall 14% below inflation since 2010. The removal of financial support for students of health professions has seen applications for health degrees plummet.

Hard working staff are being forced out of the profession and young people are being put off before they have even started. Now Brexit threatens the ability of health employers to recruit from overseas.

What is bad for NHS staff is bad for patients too. The Francis Report made an explicit link between staffing levels and patient safety. Short staffing means services reduced, operations cancelled and treatments delayed.

So in order to protect the best interests of both staff and patients, Labour is offering a long term and sustainable vision for the NHS workforce, based on better pay, safe staffing levels and fully funded education.

After eight years of pay restraint, this spring the Government has finally conceded a pay rise for the lowest-paid NHS staff. Staff, royal colleges, trade unions and the Labour Party has been vindicated in saying that a pay rise is long overdue.

But the Conservatives have had to be forced into this. In the general election, Ministers said that Labour’s plan to scrap the pay cap was nonsensical. When a nurse pleaded with the Prime Minister for a pay rise on national television, she was told that there was no magic money tree.

When we have seen nurses, paramedics and midwives losing thousands of pounds from the value of their pay; heard stories of NHS staff turning to food banks; counted more nurses leaving the profession than entering and seen trusts spending billions of pounds on agency staff, we know this pay cap should have been scrapped years ago.

Safer staffing

As well as boosting pay, Labour would also introduce new legislation requiring NHS trusts to have regard for patient safety when setting staffing levels in their hospitals.

After Francis, the Government commissioned NICE to draw up safe staffing rules but then dropped the work. Labour would restart this and reinforce it by giving it a new legal basis.

Too often hospital trusts have been told to choose between safe staffing levels and balancing the books. Labour’s new legislation would ensure that patient safety always takes priority over financial considerations when staffing levels are being set in England’s NHS.

And finally we have to protect training levels too. The Government’s decision to abolish NHS bursaries is making the staffing crisis even worse. Applications for nursing degrees fell sharply in the first year after support was taken away, and now we know there’s been a further 10% drop in applications for this autumn.

To add insult to injury, the RCN recently exposed how nursing students are being let down by the Student Loans Company during the transition away from bursaries.

Hundreds of student nurses from at least nine universities in England have been warned not to expect further loan payments this year due to administrative errors which resulted in overpayments.

This has left many worried over rent and living costs with the largest overpayments made to the poorest students – recipients of means-tested grants, who are often mature students without parental support and with children or caring responsibilities.

The abolition of the bursary is a disastrous policy. Labour is fighting this regressive cut and calling on ministers to reverse this policy and restore funding support so that we can recruit for the future.

The critical shortage of nurses in the NHS is a threat to patients across the country. By taking action on pay, on staffing levels and on training, Labour in Government would give nursing staff the support they need to provide the best possible quality of care to their patients.