One in 11 positions in NHS England (NHSE) currently remain unfilled, new figures from NHS Improvement have revealed.
The data, which covers the last 3 months of 2017, showed NHSE had 100,000 vacant posts, including 35,000 nurses and almost 10,000 doctors. NHS Improvement said the shortage of staff had contributed to the winter pressures faced by the NHS as demand outstripped supply.
Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: ‘This release puts official figures on nurse shortages in the public domain for the first time. The accompanying figures on the parlous state of NHS finances do not provide cover to raid nurse numbers even further.
‘They are instead a timely prompt for Philip Hammond ahead of his Spring Statement next month.’
About 5.6 million people visited A&E in the last quarter of 2017, that’s 250,000 more than last year, and almost half a million people were admitted to hospital in December alone.
This, among other factors, has engendered a deficit of £931 million this year – double what was planned. It is, however, still some way short of the record deficit from 2015-16 of £2.45 billion.
Saffron Cordery, NHS Providers’ director of policy and strategy, told the Guardian: ‘These figures show how the NHS has been pushed to the limit.
‘Despite working at full stretch with around 100,000 vacancies and a real risk of staff burnout, and despite treating 6% more emergency patients year on year in December, trusts cannot close the gap between what they are being asked to deliver and the funding available.’
Nigel Edwards, from the think tank Nuffield Trust, said the NHS was ‘dangerously’ understaffed.
‘In some ways, the lack of crucial workers in the NHS is an even bigger problem than the lack of funding.
‘We can sign a cheque and bring back more money on-stream if the will is there, but there is no button to push which will suddenly bring us tens of thousands of qualified extra staff.’
Kathryn Yates, Professional Lead for Primary and Community Care at the RCN, said that the number of district and community nurses are 'declining at an alarming rate'. She argued that 'Increased demand for the service' was making 'recruitment and retention challenging'.
'Community providers are not immune to financial pressures and retendering of contracts has led to a reduction in community nurses.'
Part of the problem is that the NHS spent £144 million on recruiting non-NHS private providers to plug the jobs gap. These private providers cost more money than typical NHS staff.
‘Immediate action to reverse this situation must begin with Ministers dropping plans to remove bursaries from post-graduate nursing students and instead introducing new grants and an over-due national campaign to boost student numbers,’ added Janet Davies.
And she also warned of forgetting past mistakes: ‘All the evidence shows that standards of patient care rise and fall as nurse numbers do. That was the lesson from Mid Staffordshire and we cannot afford to forget it.’
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, argued the figure demonstrated a government ‘failing’.
‘This Government has overseen a devastating decline in NHS finances and the result is worsening outcomes for patients, with huge staff shortages and treatments cancelled or delayed.
‘NHS staff are working round the clock to cope with rising demand but Ministers are failing to give them the resources to do the job.’
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: ‘We are supporting staff to improve work/life balance by working more flexibly and have announced the biggest ever expansion of training places for both doctors and nurses.’