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MINISTERS have “squandered” opportunities to address the “spiralling” crisis in nursing recruitment, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warns in a report published today.
The union says that the government has failed to learn the lessons of the Mid Staffordshire scandal, where unsafe nursing levels led to poor care and high patient mortality rates.
It comes just days after tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand proper funding for the NHS.
Calling for a huge recruitment campaign, the RCN said 700 fewer students began training last year.
The union warned that the number is continuing to fall and the nursing workforce is “shrinking,” with at least 40,000 vacancies in England alone.
The latest figures from university admissions service Ucas show that the number of trainee nurse applications is continuing to fall this year.
Without better incentives to attract new nurses, care failings similar to those in Mid Staffs are more likely, warned the RCN.
An inquiry estimated that between 400 and 1,200 patients died as a result of poor care from January 2005 to March 2009 at Stafford Hospital.
The RCN accused the government of exacerbating the crisis by abolishing student nurse bursaries – grants on which student nurses could survive while training on hospital wards.
Chief executive Janet Davies said: The staffing crisis must be stopped from spiralling further.”
She said the incentives needed were a central funding pot to help student nurses, financial support for other NHS staff who want to become nurses, thorough assessment of demand for health services and the safe staffing levels needed.
Ms Davies said: “Five years after the warnings and lessons in the Mid Staffs report, the government is still squandering the chance to address the issue, making care failings more likely, not less.
“The government knows that, when there aren’t enough nurses, patients can pay the very highest price.”
She said government dithering over the future status of migrant workers when Britain leaves the EU is also a contributory factor – the NHS is heavily dependent on staff from overseas.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This damning report from the RCN exposes the government’s hollow promises on nurse recruitment.
“Ministers have failed to deliver the number of nurses the NHS needs to keep patients safe and, by removing the nurse bursary, they’re damaging recruitment for years to come as well.
“Ministers needs to get a grip and come up with a sustainable long term plan for the NHS which deals with the staffing crisis and gives the NHS the funding it needs.”
To add to NHS problems, new research funded by the National Institute for Health Research has also revealed that the number of unfilled GP posts quadrupled between 2012 and 2014, while the number of family doctors fell by 1,000.
Public frustration at the government’s treatment of the NHS burst on to the streets across Britain on Saturday.
An estimated 60,000 people marched on Downing Street, and thousands more protested in cities and towns in the regions.
They called for an end to the handing of billions of pounds in taxpayers’ cash to profit-hungry healthcare privateers.
Actor Ralf Little told the London rally: “It’s a political choice to leave patients sleeping in corridors.”
In Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, protesters gathered outside the town’s Royal Infirmary which is threatened with closure because of debts caused by the discredited private finance initiative.
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