The shortage of district nurses in the last 12 years has not reflected policy to shift more care into the community, said RCN general secretary Peter Carter in a speech which recognised the value of community nursing.
Mr Carter delivered the closing speech on the first day of the Florence Nightingale Conference, held in London from the 12-13 March. He focused on the need for prevention rather than cure which, he said, began with community nurses.
He said that in 2003 there were 12,000 district nurses and now there are only 6500 according to figures from the DH and the RCN.
'District nurses are the very component of the NHS that keep people well, facilitate appropriate discharge, keep people out of hospital and deliver early intervention,' he said.
'There are far too many people in hospital that don't need to be there. The common denominator in all of the political parties is to shift care into the community but we need the infrastructure to do this,' he added. He said that a number of major public health issues such as alcohol dependency and childhood obesity are leading to a generation of people with long-term conditions that could be avoided if there were better and more early interventions.
Mr Carter also said that more and more nurses were going into the acute sector but there was a significant lack of mental health nurses. 'We have lost 4000 mental health nurses, and we need to reinvest in those posts. We are still one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet we are not providing adequate services for children with mental health problems.'
He also raised the issue of a lack of nurses in leadership roles. He acknowledged that it was a 'tough job' yet there were a number of 'outstanding directors of nursing across the country.' 'In an audit of trusts, director of nursing was a predominately vacant role,' he said.
Mr Carter concluded his speech by saying 'Whoever wins the next election needs to put more money into the NHS to address pay and staffing. We should be proud of Britain's nurses.'